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Nick Roth’s enchanting animated triptych merges modern technology with ancient lore in a powerful installation at the San Diego Museum of Art.
The first thing you’ll notice is the space: Just off the main stairs above San Diego Museum of Art’s atrium, one of the smaller rooms is darkened and filled with a seemingly endless array of large screens. There are really just three screens, with mirrors perched on two of the walls, reflecting the screens in an infinite line. Or maybe the music will lure you in. Plato’s portrayal of the Fates, said Los Angeles-based artist Nick Roth, was embroiled in music; they sung the harmonies of the Sirens.
Roth’s new installation, “Fates,” is a triptych inspired by the Greek mythology. Sounds very fine art institution, right? But Roth’s interpretation of the Fates is a series of three animations, moving in sync. Despite his film school upbringing and experimental film influences like Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger, he refers to it as a “moving painting,” not a film.
“I don’t have you moving through a space, because I wanted it to feel more like a painting in which the objects that you’re looking at change rather than your perspective through the space changing,” said Roth.
The animation starts with vines snaking out of a surface that could double as a barren desert or a deep ocean floor, or even cellular tissue. Each panel represents a Fate: Clotho, the Spinner, is the only panel with any color at first, a flash of bright red presumably representing the thread of life. The middle panel, Lachesis, is soon filled by a gigantic eyeball, and the final panel, Atropos, takes on a skeletal form.
As the 10-minute animation progresses, vines, eyeballs on stems and small, writhing creatures fill the screens, some even crossing between the panels. It’s transfixing, beautiful and grotesque.
What interested Roth more than the mythology is the idea that the Fates are connected with chance, and the way humans process grief and mourning as well as potential and hope in the face of chance and a destiny beyond their control.
Surrounded by a broad selection of masters — paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries to more modern works — Roth didn’t want it to stand out too much.
“Anyone with any sense knows I did not paint 14,000 frames, but it’s meant to kind of look that way, to maybe be a little less jarring in this space with these well-known paintings,” Roth said.
There is a narrative arc — the frames fill, with almost plant- or creature-like growth, representing the way the three incarnations of destiny manage a life, and at the climax it all sort of dies off — but, “it’s not really a story,” insisted Roth. It is, though, lore that’s thousands of years old, so inarguably a good tale. And as for the animation, it is incredibly hard to look away.
The striking music, “Sun Rings: Earth Whistlers” by Terry Riley, was recorded by the Kronos Quartet — known for its performance on the “Requiem for a Dream” soundtrack. It’s a textured composition of sparse string instruments, both jarringly rough and sweetly melodic, plus haunting Siren-like vocals. It’s all notably layered with recordings of actual space sounds captured by NASA’s plasma wave receivers. Plips and droning swells of electronic vibration accompany the Sirens and the Fates — myths over 2,000 years old — past the present technological age and well into the future.
Technology is integral to the piece, not just in the viewing experience but in Roth’s artistic practice. “You couldn’t really create this kind of work without the technology. It’s not possible,” he said of his computer-generated animation process. “It all seems very natural to me.”
“Today we no longer ask, ‘What is art?’ or ‘How does film and video relate to painting or photography?’ We’ve moved past these inquiries and now seek immersive experiences regardless of the media used to construct them,” said Anita Feldman, deputy director for curatorial affairs and education at the San Diego Museum of Art. Digital animation is uniquely contemporary, so applying it to something with such unfathomable history is, according to Feldman, a way to make the subject matter — not just the Greek mythology but destiny and control — relevant today.
SDMA is no stranger to technologically based works. Earlier this year, Tim Shaw’s groundbreaking exhibition included AI robotics and projections. Plus, in the spring, a new video installation by contemporary artist Cauleen Smith will involve the merger of textiles, technology and old master paintings. “Contemporary artists use technology as an art form in itself,” said Feldman.
Nick Roth’s “Fates” opens this Saturday and runs through March 1 at SDMA.
This will be my last Culture Report. I have adored freelancing with Voice of San Diego and am continually inspired by their fervent commitment to San Diego and to the truth. Thank you for reading, and I look forward to watching what becomes of this space in the future. As for me, I’ll be taking on a full-time role as arts editor at KPBS. I’ll see you around at artsy stuff, on some mountains or wherever there’s a good vegan taco.
Editor’s note: Now that the cat’s out of the bag on Julia’s departure, we’ll be taking the next few weeks to find someone who can fill her shoes. We’re so grateful for her contributions over the last year.