‘Humans Belong to a Complex Ecosystem’: Watch Diana Thater Transform a Museum Into an Immersive Underwater Experience

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Still from "Diana Thater: Delphine" courtesy of Art21.

Once condemned, a 15,000-square-foot industrial building on East Boston’s waterfront has been transformed into an otherworldly dimension where dolphins bob and dive against washes of red, purple, and magenta light. This aquatic ballet comes courtesy of video artist Diana Thater, whose two installations, Delphine (1999) and A Runaway World (2016–17), are inaugurating the ICA Boston’s brand new satellite space, ICA Watershed.

The Los Angeles-based Thater is known for creating layered and poetic work that grapples with threats to the natural world, from the trials of animals forced into captivity to those facing imminent extinction. Her films are so transporting and visually lush that they immediately make viewers understand how much they stand to lose.

In a 2016 interview with Art21 tied to her solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Thater recalled visiting zoos as a child and feeling unsettled by the display of wild animals for visitors’ amusement. These formative experiences inspired her both to help raise awareness as an activist and to create artwork with deeper political and social resonance.

Thater sees her work as a conduit for viewers to experience the underwater realm as its inhabitants do. “Just because we can’t communicate verbally doesn’t mean we can’t communicate in other ways,” she says. “And so I want to form a possible model for communication through this sympathetic bodily adventure.”

Both Delphine and A Runaway World are suffused with additional meaning installed ashore the Boston Harbor, where communities grapple with social and environmental concerns daily.

To see the artist’s work in progress and to hear more about her early inspirations, watch the full clip from Art21’s “Extended Play” series below. Diana Thater’s work is on view at the ICA Watershed in Boston through October 8.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists throughout the summer. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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