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Chernobyl, Production Still; 2010 © Diana Thater;
Chernobyl, Production Still; 2010 © Diana Thater; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Diana Thater: Chernobyl

The renowned film fanatic and artist presents her new video installation about the tragic nuclear accident in northern Ukraine

Growing up in New York in the 1960s and 70s was bound to leave its mark on self-confessed film fanatic and artist, Diana Thater – most notably in that the word impossible doesn’t seem to register in her mind. Constantly pushing technology to its limits, this acclaimed video installation artist has just tackled her most difficult project to date: an abstract look at the post-nuclear landscape of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl – a village in northern Ukraine – is today a shell of it’s former self. Twenty-five years ago, in the midst of a bustling purpose built Soviet city, Pripyat, a nuclear power plant exploded, registering level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the only level 7 event in history). It allegedly released 100 times more nuclear debris than Hiroshima did and is responsible for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of its former inhabitants. Today, the area stands completely deserted of humans, but in a remarkable feat of nature wild animals are slowly settling there. This is what attracted Diana Thater to the area – her interest in the conflict between human life and the natural world meant Chernobyl was the perfect place for her and her camera to explore.

Dazed Digital: How did you decide to become an artist?
Diana Thater:
I honestly don’t know! I just was an artist. I didn’t make any conscious decision to become one. I grew up in New York and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art from when I could walk. I always loved art from when I was really little.

DD: Where does you get your inspiration from?
Diana Thater:
 There are two things I love, one is art and the other is film. I take inspiration from wherever I can – I read, I watch films, I look at art. I’ve made work that was inspired by Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, John Ford’s Westerns, shots of Dolphins – literally any number of places. I get ideas from everything.

DD: You’ve said in the past how interested you are by the relationship between the human and natural world. What is it that you find so fascinating?
Diana Thater
: The natural world is the only true unknown. There is always this discussion of the Asian person, or the black person, or the-this-or-the-that person being the ‘other’. But they are not ‘others’ at all. The only ‘other’ we actually have is animal. They are completely unknowable – we don’t know anything about their consciousness. We can speculate, but we don’t really know.

DD: Is this interest the reason why you decided to do a project on Chernobyl?
Diana Thater: Yeah, of course. Chernobyl is the only post-apocalyptic, or post-human landscape on earth. Today it’s falling into ruins, but it still looks like a city; there’s stores, apartment buildings, schools. And even though it’s completely deserted and falling apart, animals are moving into the city. So, on the one hand you have this perfectly preserved Soviet city from 1970, and on the other hand you have this post-apocalyptic landscape where animals are living.

DD: How long where you there filming for?
Diana Thater:
 Seven days, and a preliminary visit of two days in the summer.

DD: While you were there what kind of feelings did you experience?
Diana Thater:
 It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I’ve worked in Central Africa, I’ve worked with tigers and done things that people consider ‘dangerous’, but this was the hardest. When you go to Chernobyl it’s incredibly depressing. It has something of a concentration camp feeling because there are things like piles of children’s shoes and rusted baby beds in maternity hospitals. My assistant had to leave – it was too much for her. She was living in Chernobyl in 1986 when the explosion happened, and we went back to her apartment and found a calendar from that year. She remembered it all.

DD: Is this piece political? Does it say that something good can come from such a horrific and terrible event?
Diana Thater:
 I think it’s both political and cultural. Chernobyl represents the failure of lots of things – a massive political system, a way of life, of science. Yet even with the human failures, nature continues to persist. Not because it wants or chooses to, but because it must.

DD: Is the video trying to say that nature will always persist then?
Diana Thater: That’s a hope!

DD: Why do you choose to convey your art through video and motion picture?
Diana Thater:
 I think that film is the only place – other than music – where you can experience duration, and I am very interested in that. I also like to invent little techniques and make cameras do what they’re not supposed to. When I think of new work I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with a camera or edit system that I’ve never done before.

DD: What’s next for you?
Diana Thater:
 Have a long nap! No, but seriously, I’m always thinking about the next thing. As soon as a piece is done, I’m always thinking about what’s next.

Chernobyl shows at Hauser & Wirth London, Piccadilly, 28 January – 5 March 2011