Diana Thater‘s Chernobyl covers the four walls of the space it inhabits, projecting onto them a looped short film documenting scenes of a life abruptly abandoned in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant explosion that rendered the city uninhabitable. The immersive installation piece, first shown at London’s Hauser and Wirth Gallery in early 2011 and now at David Zwirner Gallery through December 22nd, renders images of the Ukranian city’s skeletal remains and places the disaster, unconsciously, in a dialogue with the series of half-manmade, half-natural disasters of the past decade. We spoke with Thater about the origins of her inspiration, the nature of non-narrative film, and the response to seeing oneself and one’s own world reflected in scenes of past devastation.
BULLETT: The piece reminds me of Dziga Vertov and those early, silent ‘Symphony of a City’ pieces. Did you have a relationship with those early, experimental, silent films?
DIANA THATER: Of course. The entire history of experimental film is one of my main interests. I teach in an MFA program and that history is part of what I teach. Man with a Movie Camera is a really important film because it’s the first film where the apparatus is revealed, we see the city and then we see people watching the film of the city.
It’s the complete opposite effect, here. Man with a Movie Camera is celebrating the city, almost unveiling it, and Chernobyl is showing a city’s destruction.
It’s the same political system—Man with a Movie Camera is documenting the beginning of that system–that sort of, hopeful, Bolshevik, Leninist construction of the Soviet Union–and Chernobyl documents the end of it.
The shadows implicate the viewer as well. Did you think about the way people would have to involve themselves and their bodies in the art?
I’ve been working this way for twenty years. One of my real interests is you seeing yourself acting within and reacting to the work. That’s why the work is always filled with figures and you see the filmmaker and you see yourself looking, you see the filmmakers looking, it’s all about relating or finding yourself in the piece.
What are the reactions you’ve gotten about that doubling effect?
If they watched a lot of experimental film, they would understand where it came from, a kind of experimental film tradition, revealing and seeing yourself seeing, and seeing yourself as an actor within the work and someone who’s implicated in the work. It’s apparatus theory. If people know about that, they see it, if they don’t know it, they’re surprised by it and they react to it. Kids really like it, because they run around making shapes. It’s yet another layer.
Do you think of it as having a narrative?
It’s not supposed to tell a story. Something like Man with a Movie Camera is not a narrative film. It’s what we call non-narrative, what we call experimental, because film is not by nature narrative. Everything thinks narrative is implicit to film and it’s not, it’s a thing we’ve made film be. But there’s a whole history of non-narrative film running simultaneously alongside the mainstream history. I’m not interested in making stories. It’s not what I want to do.
That’s what’s interesting—from the beginning, film has been this device that faithfully documents reality, and yet the first thing people wanted to do with it was use it to tell fictional stories. It’s sort of counterintuitive.
It is, kind of. It’s like the extension of 19th century theater, theatrical actors and everything. I’m much more interested in how to work with it, not against those things, but just not that way. It’s not a negation, it’s just that I want to do something else with it, I want to explore something else, another kind of construction, another way of constructing ideas through moving images.
The show was set to premiere in January here but it was moved up after the storm.
They called me seven days ago. It was very stressful. I would have come right in but I couldn’t fly until Tuesday because I had to vote. So I’ve only been here since last Tuesday. But they did the majority of the work. The gallery rebuilt the room and shaped the room and brought in all the equipment and I just came in and set the equipment and put up the images.
They’re wanting it to have a conversation with Hurricane Sandy even though it’s about something much different.
I think you can’t compare a nuclear disaster to a hurricane, but there is a kind of resonance that can’t be denied in a certain way. One is much smaller and less important than the other, but of course it’s very important to the people who live here. They’re both ultimately man made disasters, because that’s climate change! It’s global warming! Massive hurricanes and tsunamis. Fukushima is the perfect storm combination of the tsunami and the nuclear power plant.
You said that Chernobyl was overrun with cats because people weren’t allowed to bring their pets out of the city when they were leaving.
It was the same way in New Orleans. Because they thought they were coming back. Remember Katrina, how they wouldn’t let people take their pets? When they evacuated they wouldn’t let them take them so there were all these poor animals who died or were stranded, and I worked with a group who went it with a veterinary trailer and with kennels and everything to rescue animals. There was a whole process to reunite people with their animals later. But they thought they were coming back. And in Chernobyl they thought they were coming back, too. They left their clothes, their photos. There’s calendars on the walls. All their clothes are still in the closets, dishes.