By Joe Ferguson
Famed French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre studied the mystical moment of transition between night and day. He wrote, “Nearly all animals on earth greet night in this moment of blue, find slumber in it, and awaken to it day after day.” When approaching Diana Thater’s newest work, Science Fiction, I was reminded of Fabre’s fascination with twilight.
When entering the main gallery of the San Jose Museum of Art’s Beta Space, the viewer is confronted by an encompassing installation. Directly below the gallery’s soaring central skylight, a 16x20x8-foot box emits a soft-yellow glow offset from the rest of the gallery which is infused in cosmic blue--the effect like a rising or setting sun. Projected onto the barrel-vaulted ceiling, larger-than-life images of iridescent scarabs go about their nocturnal business.
The scarabs are Scarabaeus viettei, more commonly known as dung beetles. Thater was inspired by a recent study that revealed that dung beetles use the Milky Way for nocturnal orientation. Dung beetles follow patterns of polarized light from the sun and the moon—on clear, moonless nights they follow the soft, gradient light from the Milky Way.
On view in the adjacent gallery are Visual Voyage: Milky Way to the Virgo Cluster, 2015, and Aquarius Halos, 2015. For these animations, Thater collaborated with Puragra GuhaThakurta, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and UCO/Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in San Jose. GuhaThakurta advised her on a selection of images and animations of the Milky Way created from scientific observations of the universe generated primarily with the Hubble Space Telescope. Thater synchronized the images on two, nine-screen video arrays.
Thater’s most recent work has received mixed reviews, but I believe it deserves a second glance. When evaluating her work, critics often make references to the environmental art of James Turrell and Robert Smithson, but I think a more appropriate reference would be to the work of Russell Van Gelder. In a 2007 paper in Current Biology, Van Gelder describes a non-visual ocular photoreceptive mechanism that appears to subserve circadian photic entrainment, the pupillary light response, and a number of other aspects of neurophysiology and behavior. Fabre’s moment of blue at twilight and dawn, activate this mechanism, resulting in a cascade of neurophysiological responses that define us as distinctly diurnal creatures.
Thater’s work reminds us that we are products of the natural world, at one time temporally set. Human beings cannot see polarized light--we scramble in the dark without maps of astronomical landmarks or high-tech gadgets. Other creatures, even the lowly dung beetle, possess attributes that allow them to thrive in ways we naturally cannot. The consuming, immersive nature of Science Fiction, with its upside-down world of giant, floating insects, evokes a sense of the smallness that our ancestors must have felt when gazing up at the nighttime sky.
You can see a video clip of the exhibition here.
Beta Space: Diana Thater is on display through September 13th.