"Mankind Will Destroy Civilization": Diana Thater on Her David Zwirner Show

"Mankind Will Destroy Civilization": Diana Thater on Her David Zwirner Show
Photo of a music classroom in Chernobyl taken by Diana Thater in 2010
(Courtesy the Artist and David Zwirner, New York)

As a waterlogged West Chelsea counts its losses and begins to pick up pieces of New York’s art infrastructure, Diana Thater’s video installation Chernobyl is a sobering reminder of the price of man-made environmental disasters. In 2010, Thater spent six days in and around the ghost city of Pripyat, a purpose-built Soviet city in northeastern Ukraine. Founded in 1970 to house workers for the nearby Chernobyl Power Plant, Pripyat was deserted after the now-infamous nuclear facility broke down with disastrous consequences in 1986. More than 25 years later, it is an epitome of eerie, post-apocalyptic beauty. Swans glide on the surface of the reactor’s cooling ponds; endangered Central Asian horses have free reign over the town’s crumbling architecture. These and other haunting images give us a self-inoculating image of civilization’s end, transfiguring anxiety into an intoxicating mixture of horror and fascination.

The multi-channel film is playing on a loop at David Zwirner’s 519 West 19th Street location, which has been remodeled to resemble Pripyat’s abandoned movie theater. Originally slated to open in January 2013, Thater’s exhibition was pushed forward to run from November 9 through December 22 following the recent hurricane and its attendant imagery of destruction. Irresponsible or sensationalist as it may sound to mention a superstorm in the same breath as a nuclear meltdown, both man-made catastrophes are evidence of the fragile relationship between humanity and nature, as well as of the self-annihilating capability of civilization. Thater spoke to ARTINFO about the work. 


Your installation was pushed forward given the immediacy recent events have given man-made natural disaster. How might your installation take on a new significance in the context of Hurricane Sandy?

Well, I don’t think that it’s necessary or appropriate to contextualize a hurricane within or against that of a nuclear disaster. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence at all. However, it does resonate. Destruction, or man-made destruction, which you see in the city of Pripyat and in a massive hurricane which we and every scientist would attribute to climate change, they’re both kinds of man-made disasters. And I think the rubble of Chernobyl resonates with the rubble of Chelsea. I think that’s why David was so interested in putting this work up at this time. Just because of the resonance of the looks of the two things. Even though, as I said, they’re incomparable.

What did it feel like to film in Chernobyl and live there for six days?

It was simultaneously fascinating and creepy. A lot of it has the look of a concentration camp. There are piles of children’s shoes; there are people’s eyeglasses and pictures of their families and clothes still hanging in closets. So it has this very post-human sort of feeling. It’s fascinating and bizarre to see a bed still made with a quilt on it. And there are animals living in the houses, which is something you would never see in any other part of the world. So it had this sort of simultaneous fascination and horror about it.

The gallery itself has been retrofitted to resemble Pripyat’s dilapidated movie theater. The footage of the area’s wildlife has been edited into footage of the theater itself. Can you talk about the significance of this theater as a framing device? 

The movie theater is in the center of Pripyat. The city was built [in 1970-72] with everything: the ministry of culture, the movie theater, the storefronts. Everything looks exactly the same from the outside. When I first saw the movie theater, I thought, this is exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to film Chernobyl and then I’m going to re-project it inside the movie theater. That way, you could see what it looks like to be inside of a destroyed building, and simultaneously you could watch a film. So instead of using the screen, I used all the walls of the theater. And the installation is a replica or a model of the Pripyat movie theater. So you’re in a theater, in a theater, watching projected images. It just seemed really right to me, and resonant in a lot of ways.

On one hand, the video installation shows us regenerative potential and the beauty of nature, but this beauty is tempered with pessimism. All of the animals and wildlife are irradiated. This is a toxic place.

Yes, it’s a toxic zone. Everything they eat is toxic. It’s a deadly place. And yet these animals — not knowing that — have migrated into this area because it’s a zone free of human beings and therefore free of threats. Their only threat is one they can’t know or understand, which is radiation. And it’s simultaneously heartening to see them — to see the desire of nature and of animals to persist — and at the same time it’s tragic. It’s really tragic to see their little lives being lost in this landscape to this huge tragedy. And they’re victims of the tragedy of Chernobyl as well. The Ukrainian government is proposing that they’re thriving in order to say that this zone is habitable, but it’s not true. And the animals are suffering for it. There are fewer animals than there ever were before in that area.

The twin images that open the film — the power plant and the statue of Lenin — suggest both the failure of a political system and the failure of science. Are you hopeful, or skeptical about politics and science today?

It’s hard. The vast number of scientists tells us that climate change is irreversible. We can’t be saved from it. And it’s this idea I have, that mankind will destroy civilization. It’s inevitable and it’s imminent. As much as we do to try and stop climate change, it can’t be reversed and take us as far back as we need to be taken back. We can slow it but we can’t stop it. So there’s a kind of pessimism, yes. But I always tell people, I’m not a pessimist, I’m a disappointed optimist. My love of working with the natural world will carry me through the rest of my life. The need to document these things — the need to document the desire of nature to persist — is part of my life. Even when these animals are extinct, I hope that this work will still exist so that we can see them. I made a project with tigers, and of course we all know that there are fewer tigers in the wild than there are now in captivity. There are less than 5,000 in the wild. The hope and the sadness that I had when I made that piece is that tigers will be gone, probably in our lifetime. But I tried to make the beauty of them live on in my work.

Did you encounter any specific challenges installing your work in Chelsea after the hurricane?

Not really, because the gallery did such an amazing job putting the room back together as fast as they could. Originally I wanted to install it in a sort of destroyed room. I wanted to leave the watermarks because I thought it would have even more resonance, but they had already ripped out the walls and rebuilt them. I didn’t really have any challenges. There were challenges for them, for the gallery to rebuild in time to have a show.

What project are you working on next?

I just did a group of still lifes. Besides working on the disastrous relationship between humans and the natural world, I also do still lifes in my studio. I do these big flower walls. And I’m working on a group of those. And I’m also preparing to do a new piece with iridescent scarab beetles. Who knows why? I’m really interested in insects right now. I don’t know where it comes from in my mind, but I’m working with purple iridescent scarab beetles.