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Diana Thater's "Untitled Videowall (Butterflies)" (2008).

Fredrik Nilsen

Diana Thater's "Untitled Videowall (Butterflies)" (2008).


Big Cats and Monarchs at Art Museum

Video Environments by Diana Thater


When my editor suggested that I should write about an art exhibit I wondered if he had made a mistake. I’m not an art critic, nor an art connoisseur. However, it is also true that when I see either a piece of art or an exhibition, I know what I like and what I don’t. I know if it makes me feel something or if it goes completely over my head. So, shooing my insecurities away, I drove myself to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) to see the exhibition Diana Thater: Butterflies and Other People on its opening day.

The exhibition occupies two of the museum galleries, galleries 10 and 11, using the existing architectural space as a landscape within which to create color-and-light-saturated environments and projections.

The first work in the exhibition is titled “Videowall (Butterflies)” (2008). It is Thater’s response to an invitation by three curators in Mexico City to create artwork drawing attention to the threats to the monarch butterflies’ winter home in Michoac¡n, Mexico. This multi-monitor piece shows footage of the migratory resting place on six flat-screen monitors that rest on the floor. The placement of the monitors reflect the position of the butterflies upon Thater’s arrival-thriving on the forest floor due in part to the increasing lack of forest foliage (where they normally take refuge).

Standing at the entrance of the videowall exhibition, it took me a while to figure out how to best appreciate it. Little by little I walked in. As I approached the video monitors (with certain reservations, I have to admit) I was suddenly sucked into the scene, and into the reddish color that permeated everything, including me. By the time I was amidst those monitors, I became completely oblivious of my surroundings, while I had the most incredible worm-like view of a butterfly posed on a little branch. Its colors and its movements around me were captivating. At times, the view was so up-close that it lacked focus, but that didn’t bother me. It felt very natural to be there. I kept looking downwards and around me for several minutes. It liked it there. Somehow, it was a calming experience.

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Courtesy Photo

Perfect Devotion Two” (2005) is the second work in the exhibition, featuring rescued tigers from the Shambala Preserve, a big-cat rescue ranch in Southern California. The subjects of this exhibition are Simba, Mona, and Zo», who were discovered together as cubs. Like most of the cats that live at the ranch, they were rescued from the black market trade of exotic animals, though some are rescued from zoos.

Maybe because I’m more used to watching videos or movies of tigers, I related to this exhibition more easily and quickly. The all around green-lit environment was very inviting. This was the first time I watched a tiger appearing rather confused, not knowing how to react to the stimuli around it. This made the exhibition interesting and fun to watch.

I was curious about such an original artist, and after some research I learned that Thater was born in San Francisco, received her B.A. in Art History at NYU and her M.F.A. at Art Center College of Design, and lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Walker Art Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and many others. Recent exhibitions include Diana Thater: gorillagorillagorilla, at the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria (a collaborative project with the Natural History Museum, London, England).

Once again, I was able to confirm how lucky it is for us that we can count on the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a privately funded, not-for-profit institution, to bring to us internationally recognized collections and exhibitions and a broad array of cultural and educational activities, as well as travel opportunities around the world. For more information on these or other exhibits call 805-963-4364 or visit sbma.net.

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