Diana Thater, Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), 2008 Credit: Fredrik Nilsen

It helps to think of “The Sympathetic Imagination,” Diana Thater’s new retrospective show at the MCA, the same way Hemingway encouraged readers to approach his own work—as an iceberg. Only 10 percent of the material is easily accessible, and it looks like a big, white sheet of ice that makes you say, “Yes, and?” The remaining 90 percent lies below the surface and requires special tools to excavate and appreciate.

The 11 installations that make up “The Sympathetic Imagination,” which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, largely consist of videos that run either independently or as collages and are projected onto the walls and floors of several large rooms, creating an immersive experience. Many of the videos are of animals. There are variations in color, enhanced by color separations on video, gel-covered lights, tinted windows, skylights in the galleries, and film speed. Thater offers a clue to her intentions with an epigraph by J.M. Coetzee that also gives the exhibition its title: “There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.”

The good news, should you choose to view “The Sympathetic Imagination,” is that Thater is more than happy to provide those tools. She studied art history at NYU before she received her MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where she still teaches. She’s written all the explanatory text in the exhibition guide and has also recorded interviews that are available at a listening station midexhibit. She’s petite, with big eyes that give her a deceptively doll-like appearance, but her demeanor is that of an art history professor. “In my work,” she told a group of journalists at a recent press preview, “form and content work together to create meaning.”

Thater is also something of a polymath, and her work reflects wide reading in science, mathematics, and ancient mythology. Knots + Surfaces, for instance, is a collage of extreme-close-up Super-8 projections of honeybees dancing in a “hive” made up of five multicolored hexagons. Honeybees use their dance to communicate where likely sources of pollen are located and direct other bees directly to those sources—this is common knowledge. What inspired Thater, though, was the work of a mathematician, Barbara Shipman, who had grown up with bees because her father was an entomologist. Shipman has proposed that bees exist in six dimensions, just like quarks in quantum mechanics. (This theory was controversial in the 1990s when it was first published, but it has since become more accepted.)

“That fascinated me,” Thater says. “Everything in a bee’s life is in sets of six. The comb is a six-sided form. They have six eyes.” Knots + Surfaces is an attempt to bring the viewer into the world of the bees. Five images coalesce into one, which looks like chaos to a human but would probably make perfect sense to a bee.

Delphine, a companion to Knots + Surfaces (an open doorway separates them; if you stand in one, you can see through to the other), immerses the viewer in the world of dolphins, which is slightly more accessible than that of bees. Even though humans move through two dimensions while dolphins move through three, at least it’s possible to capture three- dimensional movement on film.

“Dolphins navigate two worlds,” Thater explains. “They understand the world of water and air. Neither is invisible.” Unlike most other mammals, dolphins breathe consciously; only half their brains sleep at a time so they can continue to swim and breathe.

Delphine consists of four projections, two Super 8 and two video, in a room filled with magenta light. Each projection shows a wild dolphin swimming upward through the Caribbean Sea in the direction of the sun. (The sun is also represented in a static video on the opposite side of the room.) At the end, the dolphins emerge onto the surface, open their pectoral fins, and flip over to warm their bellies in the sunlight. The viewer, meanwhile, is also encouraged to move through space; the color, Thater says, is meant to make you more conscious of the space in the room, the way a dolphin has to be conscious of water and air. (She did not, however, attempt to re-create echolocation, the dolphin sixth sense that transforms sounds into images; she considers sound a distraction in her work.)

Thater’s work plays with other forms of self-consciousness. China is a 360-degree video installation of animal trainers attempting to make a pair of performing wolves stand still; one or more of the six cameras that Thater used is always visible onscreen, and, as in most of the pieces in the exhibition, there’s usually a projector somewhere behind a viewer to cast a shadow onto the wall. “People lose themselves in film and video,” Thater explains. “I want viewers to be conscious of their bodies. I’m trying to express that the technical is not an impediment to the experience of the sublime.”

But is the technical—or the explanation of the technical—necessary to the experience of the sublime? Should it be? Perhaps an answer lies in Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden, the earliest-produced work in the exhibit. Thater had a fellowship to live and work in Monet’s home in Giverny, France, where she spent some of her time documenting the growth of the garden, which was guarded by a fierce cat named Fifi. In the two videos that make up Oo Fifi, Thater plays with separating colors and putting them together again, an homage to Monet’s method of painting where, instead of mixing his pigments, he put dollops of pure colors next to each other to create a blended effect. This seems simple to us now, part of the most elementary art history, because Monet and his followers made us accustomed to this way of looking at color. It’s possible that Thater’s way of looking at space will become just as commonplace, especially since she’s so willing to teach us.  v