Politics is similar to art in that both are often reduced to questions of representation. The question of who or what is being represented by who or what; the question of whether this representation is legitimate or effective; and most importantly, the belief that the most important work is simply a redistribution of representation: a redeployment of our attention to where it was missing—or merely adding a seat at an already existing table. The limitations of this approach become evident if the table is deemed unsatisfactory. In politics, the re-designers of that table are called “radicals” (from the Latin radicalis, or “roots”), whereas in art, there is a parallel to work we call abstract. Thus, the work of the imaginary is especially clear and obvious in both radical politics and abstract art—though, and this is important, it is not absent from either non-abstract art or un-radical politics, merely harder to locate.
I would like to wager that when history remembers Trevor Paglen as one of the important artists of our time it will be because of the way that his work summons precisely this set of relationships: between abstraction and representation, politics and art, image and idea. If this claim seems inflated, I would encourage a trip to see the current exhibition—his first—at Metro Pictures. Unfortunately, I will not touch on much of the exhibition here, barring two specific images and the delightful Angelus Novus, a photograph of the back of Paul Klee’s eponymous 1920 painting depicting an angel. In Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)—something of an ethical master text of the late-twentieth century—he refers to this angel as the “angel of history,” which faces backwards as it is blown towards the future. The force propelling the angel, Benjamin says, is progress, which has the somewhat counterintuitive effect of rewriting history as an endless catastrophe, as we become increasingly aware of injustices that were not visible before. Paglen has attached this photograph—along with 99 other images selected by a variety of collaborators—to a geo-synchronous satellite that will orbit the earth quite literally until the end of time. Part of his project “The Last Pictures,” these images also appear both on the wall and as a slideshow. The conceit is that each image might help explain to an alien race the ruins left on planet earth.
Indeed, Paglen’s work is so compelling less because it is so new then because by pushing past the points where many artists are content to rest—the reference, the gag, the fetish—he has accounted for all of these, turning so much morbid, fin de siècle ambivalence into images of crystalline beauty and significance. We see this if we consider two of the less immediately concrete images in the show from 2012: Contrails (R-4808N Restricted Airspace, Nevada) and COSMOS 2084 in Draco (Russian Oko [“Eye”] Early-Warning Satellite). These are pictures of the sky, broken only by the faintest trace of secret military technology; both images faintly resemble canvases like those produced by Yves Klein or Cy Twombly. And it is actually here, at the level of semblance, that the activity in Paglen’s work is easiest to grasp. What these images represent is top-secret security technology; they are portraits of an international military industrial complex that has outlived the historical justifications for its existence and has started producing new ones—usually in the form of terrorists. However, they resemble abstract painting, or a kind of purportedly autonomous, individual expression said to be free, or almost free, of representation and reference.
The effect of this semblance is oddly reciprocal. On the one hand, we are encouraged to ask after the existence of contrails, or historical traces, in abstract work of the past. How does Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, say, from 1946, look to the angel of history? And, on the other hand, we are encouraged to consider the element of abstraction at work in the contemporary landscape of political violence. Which imaginary is it, political or otherwise, that draws the flight pattern of the spy satellite, the drone, or the classified fighter jet? Or, to put it more clearly, to what extent can these machines be accounted for in terms of representation—whether in terms of the “will of the American people,” or of democracy, say, or of the Enlightenment. And then again, the corresponding question—if state violence now takes place via a process of radical abstraction, to what extent can it be contained or defeated by historical forms of representation? Paglen’s work is thus a perfect example of why it is always a mistake to speak of political art as a category apart, for what—and how—we see determines which trail we follow towards the future.
- 1View of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures, New York, 2013. All installation views courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York.
- 2View of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures, New York, 2013.
- 3Trevor Paglen, Contrails (R-4808N Restricted Airspace, Nevada), 2012. C-print. 48 x 60 inches (image size), 49 x 61 inches (frame size). Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, Altman Siegel Gallery, and Galerie Thomas Zander.
- 4Trevor Paglen, COSMOS 2084 in Draco (Russian Oko ["Eye"] Early-Warning Satellite), 2012. C-print, 48 x 60 inches (image size), 49 x 61 inches (frame size). Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, Altman Siegel Gallery, and Galerie Thomas Zander.
- 5View of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures, New York, 2013.
- 6Trevor Paglen, Untitled (Predator Drone), 2012. C-print, 48 x 60 inches (frame size), 49 x 61 inches (frame size). Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, Altman Siegel Gallery, and Galerie Thomas Zander.
- 7View of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures, New York, 2013.
- 8View of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures, New York, 2013.