The Reality of Nature is Far More Wondrous Than Anything We Can Imagine.1
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
For millennia, humans have turned to the stars to navigate their way, seek spiritual guidance, and track the coming seasons. We have catalogued and mapped, charted and photographed, countless celestial objects and stronomical events. Now, with the help of powerful modern telescopes and the advances of astrophysics, we can even glimpse distant corners of the universe unseen by previous generations of stargazers.
Humans are not the only animals to search the skies at night. Birds, whales, and seals follow certain stars during their long, seasonal migrations. Moths and nocturnal wasps fly by the light of the moon.3 However, only one member of the animal kingdom is known to use the luminous band of the Milky Way for orientation: the dung beetle.4
This ingenious creature’s curious eating habits help sustain the natural environment. Dung beetles assume a critical role in pasture ecosystems. They feed on fresh pads of manure and bury them underground, which discourages the spread of disease among livestock and improves the composition of the soil.5 While many species of the insect exist, only a handful of dung beetles (known as “tumble bugs” or “rollers”) gather animal excrement into neatly compacted spheres. Since these one-inch creatures expend a great amount of energy sculpting what will become nursery and nourishment for their young, they often find it easier to steal such hard-earned possessions from others. Large male beetles frequently pilfer goods from their smaller counterparts at the dung pile, making a quick and efficient getaway from this chaotic site crucial for survival.6 A straight line is optimum, and to move in relatively straight paths (often up to three hundred feet in length), dung beetles follow patterns of polarized light from the sun and moon, created when light interacts with various materials, particles, and surfaces and is refracted in an alternative direction.7 Incredibly, on clear, moonless nights, they accomplish the same feat by following the soft, gradient light of the Milky Way.
In a recent study, Swedish biologists working in South Africa discovered through a series of experiments that dung beetles use the starry sky and the Milky Way for nocturnal orientation when the moon is not present. Placed at the center of a small, outdoor arena open to the night sky, the dung beetles moved in relatively straight lines to the edges of the enclosure. When fitted caps were placed on select beetles, their paths became long and circuitous. Moving indoors, scientists conducted the same test in the Johannesburg Planetarium, only this time they included a projection of the Milky Way and discovered that the beetles moved equally well indoors with the band of galactic stars as their guide.8
Humans cannot see patterns of polarized light nor do we still rely on the galaxy as a wayfinding tool. Because such phenomena are beyond our sight and intuition, artist Diana Thater’s exploration of the relationship between the dung beetle and the Milky Way is all the more remarkable. Thater illustrates the mysteries of the night sky and the natural world in Science, Fiction (2015), a dramatic new video and light installation commissioned by the San Jose Museum of Art. For the final video, Thater set her own footage of dung beetles shot in the Sonoran Desert outside of Tucson, Arizona, within a field of black—the larger-than-life jewellike insects set adrift along the museum’s soaring twenty-seven-foot-high barrel-vault ceiling like satellites launched into outer space. Directly below this otherworldly scene, an enclosed box emits a soft yellow light like that of the sun while in an adjacent gallery, high-tech video arrays play mesmerizing visualizations of our galaxy and the farthest reaches of the known universe. Thater completed the installation by enveloping the gallery in blue light to mimic the cosmos—an apt metaphor for the dung beetle’s experience and perception.
Thater has often taken an animal’s interactions with its environment as a starting point to investigate ideas of space and time, because “animals offer us the possibility to contemplate a point of view that has perhaps a more multiplicitous [sic] relationship to time [and] space.”9 Wolves, horses, tigers, elk, zebras, dolphins, bees, falcons, butterflies, and gorillas are among the subjects she has studied in depth. In creating her encompassing film and video installations, Thater frequently collaborates with animal specialists and scientists. She believes her work as an artist “is about rethinking the environment…rethinking how other beings live in the world…to change the way people see the world.”10
To heighten our sensory awareness of the built environment, Thater suffuses architectural space with layers of imagery and tinted light, whether natural or artificial. Colorful rooms make viewers “aware of the space that surrounds the images” of her video projections.11 Accordingly, Thater’s rooms of tinted light link her artistic practice to the work of California Light and Space artists, particularly with Bruce Nauman, Maria Nordman, and James Turrell, each of whom has engaged architecture to create immersive environments of light. Although Nordman’s use of transparent colored plastics to tint daylight12 anticipates Thater’s own work with tinting space, Nauman’s influential light works from the late 1960s and early 1970s involving architecture and the human body13 would prove pivotal to Thater’s ideas regarding the installation of video. Thater incorporates the space of a room into her film and video installations, while her work’s technology (video projectors, media players, and cables) becomes sculptural components of her installations.14
Saturated in blue light, Science, Fiction recalls Turrell’s “Ganzfeld” installations (in which viewers enter into a seemingly boundless space of color), but his “skyspaces” are a closer connection and a point of departure for Thater.15 From inside Turrell’s semi-enclosed structures, viewers observe the changing sky (influenced by carefully sequenced LED lights) through an aperture at the top of the chamber. Thater uses the enclosed space of the gallery in a similar way. She blankets the gallery in a single color of light to create an environment in which viewers experience space unfolding all around them, achieving what the Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris (whom Thater makes reference to throughout her practice) called “presentness”—a viewer’s experience of actual space in real time.16 Like Turrell, Thater also offers viewers a window to the sky, yet rather than the beautiful heavens, her “sky” may offer footage of insects and feces floating through space. As with all of Thater’s work, however, this unlikely subject is gorgeous in presentation, with the iridescent green shells of the beetles sparkling like stars.
Art, like Science, is free from everything that is positive
or established by human conventions, and both of them
rejoice in an absolute immunity from human lawlessness.
Today, we understand time in the universe through distances between Earth, the sun, the moon, and other astronomical bodies in our solar system and beyond. In Thater’s celestial-inspired projects, scientific data are integral components because such research forms the basis of much of our empirical knowledge of the universe and of the natural world. For Dark Matter (2003), Thater based her hypnotic videos on computer animations of the “Big Bang” as it is hypothesized by scientists and of dark matter obtained from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. By carefully sequencing the scientific animations with bands of color and altering their progression, she considered time as it moves through and interacts with vast, dark areas of space. As time moves in all directions in the universe, cutting, layering, and sequencing of images can make time in film and video seem similarly multidimensional.
In Science, Fiction, Thater received her digital animations of the Milky Way and greater galactic neighborhood from leading astronomers and astrophysicists from throughout the world. She sought advice from Puragra GuhaThakurta, an international expert on galaxy formation and evolution at the University of California, Santa Cruz and UCO/Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose, who recommended a careful selection of visualizations based upon astronomical observational data. Thater synchronized on two video arrays—each comprised of nine screens—these scientific visualizations of deep space and galactic time. In these works, she encourages viewers to ponder the vastness of the universe and to alter their perception of time. As Thater showcases the technological achievements of 21st-century astronomy and introduces audiences to abstract concepts of time and space, she also aesthetically conveys the sublime aspects of the cosmic imagination.
There are times when the great outdoors shrinks phenomenologically
to the scale of a prison, and times when the indoor expands to the scale
of the universe.
“Scale is the most important thing in art,” explained Thater. “In my work, things are always a different size than they are in the real world so that the viewer is physically conscious of the objects she approaches.”19 Bees and butterflies fill the space of a room; sun and sky fit comfortably within the confines of a video monitor. The pioneering artist Robert Smithson, an important influence for Thater, articulated a similar viewpoint when he discussed his creation of Spiral Jetty (1970), a large earthwork located at Rozel Point in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and of his film of the same name. Smithson surmised that scale, not size, determined art, but only if one has “the capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception.” In other words, the appearance of an object can be manipulated so that “a crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon.”20 Thater extended the parallel between herself and Smithson in an insightful essay on Smithson’s film, published in the monograph Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities in 2005. She described his storyboard for the film’s sequence of simple, yet specific, instructions for Ed Caulfield, the helicopter pilot tasked with filming the jetty from above: “position the reflection of the sun in the center of the Jetty.” The result, according to Thater, is that “the Jetty becomes a galaxy with a sparkling sun at its center.”21
How then to bring the immense expanse of the universe into the space of a gallery through video and installation? Lately, Thater has introduced prefabricated architectural structures into her installations, for example, the six false walls constructed to encapsulate the multidimensional projections of Chernobyl (2011). She transformed the gallery space to mimic the architectural geometry of the interior of a ruined theater; inside, viewers entered a video panorama of the crumbling northern Ukrainian city of Pripyat. Viewers could virtually walk live—in the moment—through the city with Thater and see along with her, for instance, the wild Przewalski’s horses running loose.
Science, Fiction also contains a structure built specifically for the installation. For the first time, Thater did not wrap her video around a corner, bleed it into a window, or twist it along its axis, projected it onto a ceiling from within the confines of a freestanding box. Glowing with soft yellow light from below, the box seems to float in space like a sun. Its imposing presence forces viewers to walk around it just as celestial bodies orbit a parent star. Thater’s video hovers above this mini-sun as if ejected outward like planetary dust. If the dung beetles represent Earth and animations of the Milky Way represent outer space, Thater has created her own remarkable solar system.
Today, more than half of the human population lives in urban areas,22 where often only the brightest objects in the night sky can be seen. The majority of us no longer see the intricate web of stars that forms our galaxy. Increasing light pollution not only threatens the survival of a creature like the dung beetle, but disconnects us from a time when the stars played an integral role in shaping human culture and beliefs.
Thater’s Science, Fiction lets us see and experience once again our world and beyond. Enveloped in glowing light, we open our minds to the vast, infinite wonders of the universe.
Rory Padeken, assistant curator
1. The essay title is paraphrased from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s opening monologue for “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” episode one of the documentary television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (21st Century Fox, 2014).
2. William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” 1803.
3. Alan Burdick, “Dung Beetles, Dancing to the Milky Way,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/dung-beetles-dancing-to-the-mil….
4. Marie Dacke et al., “Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation,” Current Biology 23 (2013), 298 – 300, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.034.
5. Michelle L. Thomas, “Dung Beetle Benefits in the Pasture Ecosystem,” National Center for Appropriate Technology (October 2001), https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/download.php?id-241.
7. John Roach, “Dung Beetles Navigate by the Moon, Study Says,” National Geographic News, July 2, 2003, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/07/0702_030702_dungbeetle….
9. Diana Thater, “Skin deep,” in the best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space, ed. Peter Noever (Los Angeles and Vienna: MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 1998), 33.
10. Thater, quoted in “Diana Thater: Light and Space.” YouTube video, 4:13. Posted by “MOCAtv, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles,” October 1, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm1Xy34kJMA.
11. Thater, quoted in Liz Kwon, “Art & Space: Diana Thater,” BOB Art, December 2012, http://www.davidzwirner.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/120000-DT-BOB-Ar….
12. Robin Clark, “Phenomenal: An Introduction,” in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, ed. Robin Clark (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 20.
13. Ibid, 50.
14. Thater, quoted in “Diana Thater Lectures at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.” Vimeo video, 60:01. Posted by “Anderson Ranch Arts Center,” August 27, 2013, http://vimeo.com/73228949.
15. Thea Ballard, “Portfolio: Diana Thater,” Modern Painters, January 2015, 17 – 19.
16. Robert Morris, “The Present Tense of Space,” in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), 177.
17. Friedrich Schiller, “Ninth Letter,” in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Reginald Snell (New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 51.
18. Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” in Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities, ed. Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly (Berkeley: University of California Press and New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2005), 12. Originally published in Gyorgy Kepes, ed., Arts and the Environment (New York: Braziller, 1972).
19. Thater, quoted in “More Stars than there are in Heaven: Christiane Schneider in conversation with Diana Thater,” in Diana Thater: Transcendence is expansion and contraction at the same time (London: Haunch of Venison, 2003), 17.
20. Smithson, 9.
21. Thater, “A Man Becomes Unstuck in Time in the Film that Became a Classic!,” in Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities, 178.
22. “World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas,” last modified July 10, 2014, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanizatio….