Science, Fiction, Diana Thater’s newest video installation, which features appearances by the Milky Way and dung beetles and an oblique nod to the artistic activities from the 1960s that we associate with the term Light and Space, sounds far more compelling than it actually is.
Just how do these things touch on one another? A 2013 paper in Current Biology established that dung beetles – at least a species of ball-rolling dung beetles named Scarabaeus satyrus (about which it is a mystery why more art isn’t made) – use the Milky Way to navigate. Dung beetles are already known to use the sun, the moon and – to my mind the more compelling feat – the celestial polarisation pattern to navigate their way around the dung heap, but this was the first time that the Milky Way, visible as a gradient of celestial light that stripes our night sky, was proven to offer the beetles a means of orientation, particularly since it’s visible when the moon is not. To test this ability, a team of South African biologists set up their beetle arena inside the Johannesburg Planetarium, which allowed them to conveniently turn the Milky Way on and off. When on, the beetles got moving in straighter lines than when just a field of dim or even a handful of bright stars were projected. QED.
Around this bit of experimental resourcefulness Thater has constructed a two-part installation: for one part, two nine-screen arrays of monitors, set on opposite walls, capture the celestial lightshow of the planetarium that belongs to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Named, respectively, The Starry Messenger and Sidereus Nuncius (all works 2014), the English and Latin titles of Galileo’s first astronomical treatise on observations made with the assistance of a telescope, Thater’s arrays show the slow rotation of the night sky beyond the ominous spherical head of the planetarium’s stationary star projector. The scene will immediately call to mind the establishing shots of any number of science-fiction films set in outer space, the chasm between that celestial curtain and whatever little bit of technology the characters depend upon for survival providing the very conditions of possibility for not just whatever dramatic action is to come but also the fearful limits of our understanding (for which aliens of all sorts serve as allegories). The simplicity with which Thater is able to stage this twentiethcentury filmic ur-scene is a testament to her talents; that the room in which we watch the screens is bathed in a blue-quasi-black light, supposedly meant to replicate skylight at dusk, means she is not immune to overreach.
For the other part, Thater has built a roomsize box that gives off yellow light below and projects a closeup of dung beetles at work onto the gallery’s ceiling above. Why the architectural intervention? Though one doubts it’s Thater’s guiding rationale, with a projection of shit on the ceiling, perhaps it’s better that one can’t get right underneath it to watch.
Putting images of the dung beetle’s earthbound enterprise in the place where one would expect to see images of the sky is a rote kind of reversal; one would expect it of a BFA student and not from someone of Thater’s intelligence. And that’s the general problem with Science, Fiction: it chases after big ideas – art historical, astronomical, biological – and wants to weave them together across scales measured by orders of magnitude, but doesn’t manage to get a hold of them in the first place. Should we marvel at the way the modestly small has coevolved with the unfathomably large? Is it tragic that the electrical illumination of the world threatens the nighttime orders of nature? Does the planetarium model for us some future when images of our ‘outside’ are all we will have to experience? The answers here are yes, yes and no. Better than religion, science has always projected its unknown, which is fundamentally a figural if not a representational category, and hence the province of fictions of all sorts. But what the unknown, the ‘outside’, possesses, ultimately, and which Science, Fiction does not, is gravity.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.