Diana Thater: The Conversation
1301PE, Los Angeles
Through December 4, 2021
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
“To sleep, to dream, to touch, to hurt, to live, to die…To crash, to run, to walk, to fly, to jump, to rise. Whizz, woot, bing, bop, mawwwww, gurgle, shriek, chuckle, squawk!!!” The Conversation is two new video pieces by Diana Thater featuring the voices of artists T. Kelly Mason and Alexa Almany, speaking for and alongside a Scarlet macaw named Katrina, two African grey parrots called Polly and Neo, and an Amazon parrot called Panama, who act in the videos. A series of site-specific window gel-installations casts a diffuse palette keyed to the birds’ plumage in reddest red, emerald green, luminous teal, silver-blue ombre, and cheerful yellow. The sound swells and envelopes the room as completely as the light.
Titled Talk to Us and Listen to Us (both works: 2021, 2-channel audio / video installation, endless loop), Thater packs a lot of poetry and dissonance into two installations. The color is warm and beckoning, while the literal cacophony is both mysterious and overwhelming. It’s loud and it’s hard to get a handle on. The human voices mimicking parrot voices which at times are themselves imitating human speech, intertwined with the lavishly expressive abstract natural language of these birds, blends and obscures and augments and eventually settles into a kind of rhythm. The soothing effect of the colored light flooding and unifying the space helps this process, anchoring the viewer to the room long enough for the poetics and onomatopeias to sort themselves out. “Up and down and in and out…To run, to walk, to dream. Bang, whistle, woo-hoo! Listen to us! Listen to us!”
There’s a terrific recent episode of Change Lab, a longform interview podcast produced at ArtCenter that explores the transformative power of creativity, where Thater discusses her work. Although the episode is largely dedicated to examining the pandemic period remote-viewing streaming work Yes, There Will Be Singing which can still be viewed on David Zwirner’s website, she does extensively discuss the part of her practice that requires travelling around the world to film endangered species in their natural habitats. At one point she reflects on, “how the human relationship to nature is reflected in our relationship to and treatment of animals.” The birds in this exhibition live at the Intertwined Conservation Corporation, an exotic bird rescue — making them not only majestic creatures, but ones who have experienced both trauma and what Thater refers to in the podcast as “elaborately constructed relationships with people.”
At times philosophical and at others saucy and funny, sometimes with a slight sense of menace, and always on the edge of madness, the main takeaway in terms of getting to know the personalities of birds is that a language does not require words to communicate with clarity — and that even when there are words, grammatical structures and elaborate syntax are not strictly necessary. It makes sense that Thater cites Gertrude Stein, a writer whose primary interest in imagery was as a springboard for an abstracted concrete dialectic. Human words after all are just groups of sounds upon whose meanings we tend to agree. Where at one moment this realization illuminates a deeper level of similarity between human and animal, at another it also deconstructs the power of the thing we as humans most often — and perhaps erroneously — identify as what sets us apart from them.