Culture Report: Mythology Goes High Tech - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture

Culture Report: Mythology Goes High Tech

Nick Roth’s enchanting animated triptych merges modern technology with ancient lore in a powerful installation at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Nick Roth
A rendering of Nick Roth’s “Fates,” opening this weekend at SDMA / Image courtesy of Nick Roth

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.

nick roth
The first panel of Nick Roth’s “Fates” at SDMA represents Clotho. / Image courtesy of Nick Roth

Snip the Thread

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.

Nick Roth
The center panel in Nick Roth’s “Fates” represents Lachesis. / Image courtesy of Nick Roth

‘It’s Not Really a Story’

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.

Space Sounds

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.”

The final panel of Nick Roth’s “Fates” at SDMA represents Atropos. / Image courtesy of Nick Roth

Animation Technology in Art

“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.

A Snow Maiden, Pivot to Video and More Arts and Culture News and Events

Visual Art

Music

Theater and Dance

  • Here’s a Nutcracker-by-Nutcracker Choose yours today! (U-T)
  • In a viral video posted to Facebook on Thursday, Off Broadway Theater Company’s Kyle Hawk could be heard berating the teen members of the cast of “A Chorus Line,” which closed this weekend. Hawk, the company’s director, was removed, and the parents and community rallied over the weekend to support the youth cast before their final show. (U-T)
  • Santaland Diaries is now open and running through Dec. 22 at Diversionary.
  • Did you know SDSU’s Musical Theater MFA program is one of only three such programs in the country? On Wednesday, Dec. 4 it opens the run of “She Loves Me,” set in a 1930s European perfumery with a good spritzing of love letters and miscommunication.

Literature and Film

  • On Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego hosts a screening of seven new videos produced by Visual AIDS, plus a conversation with filmmaker Nguyen Tan Hoang, to commemorate the 30th annual “Day With(Out) Art.”
  • Monday’s monthly Verbatim Poets Society open mic night includes a canned food drive.
  • “The Cave,” a new documentary about a secret underground hospital in Syria run by women, particularly Dr. Amani Ballour, screens at Digital Gym for a week starting Friday. Here’s a review of the film, made almost entirely remotely by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Feras Fayyad. (WBUR/Here and Now)
  • Is there more video-based news than usual this week? Wonderspaces and San Diego Art Institute present four VR films in an immersive experience, beginning Saturday through the end of the year.
  • Looking ahead: The San Diego Film Consortium champions not just local filmmaking talent but local stories. The Her Film Challenge, which screens Thursday, Dec. 5 at Landmark Hillcrest, features a series of shorts adapted from local true stories, written and directed by local women-led teams.
Her Film Challenge
A still from the short film “The Flourish,” at the Her Film Challenge / Image courtesy of The Film Consortium

Technology, Science and Culture Miscellany

  • Last week, the KPBS “Only Here” podcast kicked off a series of shorter episodes focused on border arts. The first is about Marcos Ramírez, the “godfather of border art.”
  • I’m attempting to hike 40 mountains in a year, and here are two recent climbs that are perfect for post-snow science-y nature: If you have snow chains or the roads are fine, tackle Garnet Peak in Mt. Laguna (I wrote about a snowy ascent and the mountain’s dramatic ecotones here). Or to stay dry, head to Anza Borrego and take the short climb to poet Marshall South’s 1940s homestead on Ghost Mountain, which is packed with more desert botany diversity than I’ve ever seen (bonus: You’ll spy the snow-dusted Laguna mountain range to the west).

Closing Soon

Food, Etc.

What’s Inspiring Me Right Now

  • This collection of documentary shorts on immigration and belonging is such gorgeous and powerful digital storytelling. Click for the top notch scroll game, stay for the essay woven through all of them by writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. (The New Yorker)
  • “Apparently there’s a bit of a tradition of people mailing themselves as pranks/to escape slavery/just to see what happens. This would obviously be a book of short stories, written from the perspectives of the mail carrier, the recipient, the pilot of the cargo plane, and the person in the box.” Fiction Prompts Culled from Weird Wikipedia Articles. (Electric Literature)

Parting Words

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.

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