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LATITUDE
Jan 13, 2008, 6:28 PM 0
 



January 13, 2008

The Ritual of Chess, a Decoder of Life

NATHANIEL LAGEMANN had just clinched a tournament victory at a chess club in Santa Monica, Calif., when the artist Diana Thater found him discussing the match with his final opponent.

Ms. Thater was looking for a teenage chess player for her new video project, she told Mr. Lagemann, 19. She asked if she could inspect his hands.

“I guess she wanted younger-looking hands,” Mr. Lagemann said in a telephone interview, “not scruffy-looking, hairy older hands.” He was skeptical, but eventually he drove to Ms. Thater’s home studio in nearby Highland Park for a day of videotaping, accompanied by his mother.

Ultimately Mr. Lagemann — or, rather, just his hands — played against the more seasoned hands of Mick Bighamian, 51, the owner of the Los Angeles Chess Club, and the elegantly manicured hands of Jennifer Acon, another club habitué. The videos are on view in a show — “Here is a text about the world.” — of Ms. Thater’s new work that opened on Thursday at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea.

Displayed on large flat monitors mounted onto the walls, the players’ hands inhabit the screen as actors would, engaging in historic matches. There is a re-enactment of the so-called Immortal Game, played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in London in 1851, and Garry Kasparov’s famous 2003 face-off with the computer Deep Junior. The table is swathed in black velvet, and the chessboard appears to float.

With an austere palette, the videos are a significant departure for Ms. Thater, whose best-known works depict mysterious points of contact between nature and culture, set in dazzling fields of color. A 2001 installation of overlapping video projections at Dia Center for the Arts in New York explored convergences among dancing honeybees, colored hexagons and recent theories in quantum math. A project at the Museum of Modern Art of zebras filmed from multiple viewpoints reminded viewers that images of the natural world are always filtered through the lens of technology.

Still, as different as the new works at Zwirner may appear to be, they reflect the artist’s obsession with connecting visual, intellectual and behavioral patterns.

In one of the videos Ms. Thater herself plays out the chess problem introduced when Alice plays the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Though the Looking Glass.” A new game written according to Ms. Thater’s specifications by Mr. Bighamian, a senior master, is also featured. Among her requirements: Black must play the sharpest line; black must sacrifice a queen in the middle game; and black must finally triumph, using two rooks.

“It was something I’ve never done before,” Mr. Bighamian said, referring to the scripting of a chess game. “The sharp position is very difficult and also hair-raising.” The protagonists in these videos are the games themselves, and the viewer is asked to take part. Prior to shooting, Mr. Bighamian and Mr. Lagemann rehearsed the games, so they could play smoothly and with authority. Mr. Lagemann, who is taking a year off between high school and college to pursue his dream of becoming a chess master, said he was excited to learn the Immortal Game, which he found reproduced in a chess book. “I played it over and over until I memorized it,” he said.

Ms. Thater kept the camera close to the players’ hands, filming three games in a row. From the ending position of one game they players set up the next. “I was stressed,” Mr. Lagemann said. “If I messed up on the third game, we’d have to start all over from the beginning.”

There were also three-minute blitz games involving clocks and frenetic movements that were improvised in real time on the final day of filming. “I saved all the fun for last,” Ms. Thater said.

Born in San Francisco, Ms. Thater, 45, grew up reading the “Alice in Wonderland” books. Last year, returning to “Through the Looking Glass,” she found it was not only John Tenniel’s illustrations and Carroll’s clever use of language that struck her but also the sense of chess as ritual. With continued focus and awareness, chess seductively suggests, we can decipher our chaotic landscape. She began taking chess lessons and obsessively collecting chess literature. “Chess is about war, even though it’s bloodless,” she said. Sketching storyboards and jotting notes, she trolled the Internet and chess magazines for evocative props and images.

Ms. Thater filmed the videos in natural light in the yard behind the two-story 1904 building where she lives with her companion, the artist and musician T. Kelly Mason, and six rescued cats. She edited rough cuts, then took them to a professional editing studio for finishing.

“I don’t ever want a film professional to look at my work and think, ‘Technically it’s terrible,’” she said.

Ms. Thater, whose installations have been widely exhibited at museums and biennials since the early 1990s, often seeks out niche specialists when developing ideas for her work. For a video piece about honeybees she donned a bee suit with Norm Gary, a renowned beekeeper. For a project about dark matter she consulted Steele Hill, an image and video expert at NASA. These relationships often grow close and have become long lasting.

The specialists generally describe her as intrepid. Richard O’Barry, the former trainer for the television series “Flipper,” recalled taking her to see dolphins in the wild for the 2000 video project “Delphine.”

“Diana chartered a boat, which is very, very expensive,” he said. “We saw dolphins I’ve been swimming with for more than 30 years.” Since then Ms. Thater and Mr. Mason have volunteered their expertise in videography and sound for the organization Save Japan Dolphins, of which Mr. O’Barry is the director.

“It’s always about finding someone who thinks its cool to be working with an artist,” Ms. Thater said. “If I can’t find that person, it’s really difficult.”

Such was the case when she set out to make a new video installation about falconers that is also featured in the show at Zwirner. “Falconers are very protective of their birds,” she said. “It’s a very closed world.” She contacted falconry clubs and hawking supply stores, sent out numerous e-mail messages and scanned blogs, only to discover that “someone thought I was involved in a sting operation to confiscate illegal birds.”

Then, at the 11th hour, she found a sympathetic falconer who persuaded others to cooperate, Ms. Thater said.

Fifteen falconers gathered at an amphitheater on a ranch in the Santa Monica mountains at Ms. Thater’s invitation. There she set up a crane, “so that the camera flies, and looks down on all of the birds and the people in the amphitheater.” Although the birds remain grounded, the point of view feels miraculous.

Like the chess videos Ms. Thater’s falconry pieces, which are projected on the gallery’s walls, are somberly colored and conjure medieval history and royalty. While she dismisses that as pure coincidence, it is clear that her quest for convergences is unabated.

“When the chess and falconry videos came together for a show,” she said, “I had a good laugh at myself.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

 

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