Many video artists co-opt the experience of seeing a film in a conventional theater, utilizing a single screen and an unseen projector in a darkened room. That’s not the case for Diana Thater, who strives to put viewers inside each of her expansive video installations. Her work fills walls with multiple films, leaves projectors exposed, bathes rooms in colored lighting, eschews narratives and invites observers to become immersed in vivid moving imagery.
Thater’s spacious approach is the focus of “The Sympathetic Imagination,” which serves as a mid-career retrospective, assembling 11 installations that each encompass a room in the MCA’s third-floor gallery. This presentation of the exhibition is specially tailored to the venue’s layout, deftly utilizing the existing architecture, augmented by complementary lighting. Much of the work on display prominently features wildlife and their environments, examining the uncanny ways in which non-human organisms interact with their surroundings.
Walking through Thater’s installations is not a passive experience—viewers are enveloped in the work while remaining aware of their physical effect on the mechanisms that generate it. In Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden, guests cast a hallucinogenic multi-colored shadow when they walk in front of a trio of projectors showing a video of flowers and greenery split into its three component colors of red, blue and green. Elsewhere, a projection of a Hindu temple is intermittently obscured by passing viewers, giving an even grander sense of scale to the ancient architecture.
Another notable aspect of Thater’s installations is the absence of sound, a choice that lends a serene quality to the act of viewing a moving image, devoid of intrusions by a soundtrack or narration. In some cases, such as a projection of a swarm of bees that envelops a room, the lack of sound is a jarring choice that heightens the otherworldly nature of the situation. By contrast, a haunting six-sided projection of the animals and nature surrounding Chernobyl lends an appropriately solemn and reverent tone to the work.
Thater’s unconventional methodologies are simply ways of drawing attention to the underlying themes and messages of her work. Her installations are frequently understated, but they consciously push against the conventions of the medium. Most importantly, the works collected in “The Sympathetic Imagination” aren’t intended to be escapes from reality—rather, they’re documentations of our environment’s most surreal elements that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the natural world.