LOS ANGELES — During a recent visit to Japan, I happened upon one of its novelty animal cafés, one specializing in owls. What I initially mistook for taxidermy specimens were live birds; the owls opened their eyes and rotated their heads as I took a seat at a table. Unimpressed by what they saw — another gawking tourist — the birds averted their gaze. The experience was not unlike being in the presence of cats, who are similarly indifferent to strangers. I wondered about the leashes that tethered the owls to their perch, whether the cafe owners transported the birds at night to an aviary in which they could freely roam (probably not). Days later, I traveled to Nara, where sacred sika deer roam its parks and temples. The deer here, ostensibly wild, approach tourists for the rice crackers sold by street vendors throughout the city. Waiting expectantly near every attraction, they cajole approaching humans into giving up a free meal.
These human-animal interactions came to mind as I walked through Diana Thater’s retrospective, The Sympathetic Imagination, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Using her preferred medium of light and video, Thater asks us to consider how we perceive and inhabit the space of the museum and that of nature. Light and video installations simulate the subjectivities of of honeybees, dolphins, wolves, and tigers. In the age of the Anthropocene, man-made environments progressively encroach on wildlife, but how can humans rethink space as more than just a resource to be plundered or an experience to be consumed?
In “knots + surfaces” (2001), honeybees perform their dance across multicolored hexagons, which are projected onto the gallery walls and floor. No matter how closely we observe the bees or how much we breach the hive, the dance of the bees remain inscrutable. In “Untitled Videowall (Butterflies)” (2008), six video monitors depict footage of a single monarch butterfly taken from different angles. A fluorescent light bathes the room with a warm red-orange glow, while the images on the monitors are blurry and unfocused. Uninterested in pristine documentary footage of the National Geographic variety, the installation turns its subject into abstract forms.
Visible throughout the exhibition are the projectors, monitors, and lights that create the images and effects of the artwork. As much as we are transported to a different space, we are reminded of how light and video mediate that experience in the way images overlap across the edges of a gallery wall or how a single source of light changes the atmosphere of a room. Colors are broken down into their constituent parts; primary (red, green, blue) and secondary (cyan, magenta, yellow) colors recur as leitmotifs.
In “China” (1995), six video projectors are arranged in a circle to create a panoramic image, divided into primary and secondary colors. The images surround the viewer with footage of two wolves being trained to sit still at the center of the circle. Standing between the projectors, the viewer is positioned both among and outside of the wolves, who can be seen in the periphery. Different durations and vantage points in each frame disorient the viewer’s experience of time and space. “Perfect Devotion Six” (2006) also documents wild animals in captivity, although instead of placing the viewer at the center, it suspends the perspective overhead and obscures the animals’ boundaries. Six monitors show different vantage points of an enclosure containing tigers, the cats flitting in and out of each frame.
While the psychology of animals may not be fully understood, the form and structure of the installations seem to reflect the subjective experience of animals in confinement. The exhibition’s title also suggests that imagination can enable us to sympathize with their experience of the world. The mobility of dolphins through aquatic space is the subject of “Delphine” (1999), which in contrast to “China” projects imagery of free and uninhibited movement. Dolphins swim freely through the museum space, cast in a magenta light. The installation evokes weightless and boundless movement.
Two works in particular transport me back to my memories of Japan. “Life is a Time-Based Medium” (2015) projects the image of a Hindu temple in Jaipur, India, where rhesus monkeys are considered sacred. Past the image of the temple facade, a door leads to another room, where another projection depicts the inside of a theater screening a video of the temple’s monkeys. I think about the deer in Nara and the interdependence between humans and animals. The rhesus monkeys and sika deer look to humans for shelter and food, while humans look to them for spiritual and cultural sustenance. These are centuries-old relationships, and the spaces they inhabit just as old.
The owl that stares back at the camera in “A Cast of Falcons” (2008) is the only bird that is aware of its being watched, unlike the other birds wearing hoods that cover their eyes. I think of the snowy owl at the cafe in Osaka that stared back at me, the one who gave me such a long, piercing look, I had to turn away. In an artist commentary, Thater asks “What do I see when I look at the other and what does it see when it looks back at me?” The Sympathetic Imagination attempts to answer these questions by sharing space with these animals and imagining the shapes and colors of their inner lives.
Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through February 21.