On ViewMetro Pictures
February 7 – March 9, 2013
A postcard-sized photograph of the cave paintings at Lascaux is the first image in Trevor Paglen’s exhibition at Metro Pictures. In what is today southwestern France, early humans applied mineral pigments to walls of stone, bringing forth images of animals, human figures, and symbols that remain enigmatic over 17,000 years later. Paglen considers The Last Pictures as his cave painting: an artifact for the distant future, a way of telling the story of human civilization long after we’ve gone. Working with scientists at M.I.T., Paglen developed the most archival work of art invented to date, with images microetched onto a silicon disc that, ostensibly, will never decay. A project five years in the making, Paglen’s disc was attached to a communications satellite and launched on November 20, 2012, out of Kazakhstan and into orbit.
And what was the message that Paglen dispatched to the great cosmos? While developing the project, Paglen asked renowned philosophers, scientists, and artists what images they believed would best represent life on Earth. In the second gallery of Paglen’s exhibition, a corner of the room is covered floor to ceiling with the pictures that didn’t make the cut. The remaining walls display large-format prints of some of the images that were sent to space, and a slide projector in the third gallery cycles through all of the finalists. From installation shots of Kazmir Malevich’s 0.10 Exhibition in 1915 to a laptop open to the Wikipedia page on division by zero, the pictures are perhaps most compelling for the multiplicity of interpretations they elicit.
One of the chosen photos, “Eating, Licking, and Drinking,” is from another fairly recent effort to make our cultural mark everlasting. In 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 space probes carried images that would communicate the complex story of humans to intelligent life in an unimaginable future. The project team wanted to include a picture that clearly demonstrated how people eat, but when they couldn’t find a decent image after culling through endless National Geographic magazines, they decided to produce the photo themselves. The camera captured a single frame consisting of three figures exaggeratedly licking an ice cream cone, taking a bite out of a sandwich, and pouring water from a pitcher into an open mouth. What had been an attempt to create the most unambiguous image ever morphed into a scene, appeared to be straight out of a surrealist film.
Paglen is the first to admit that The Last Pictures is an absurd gesture, one that questions the fundamentals of vision and communication. Can we properly represent life on Earth in only a couple hundred photos? Or perhaps more importantly, does it even matter which images we choose, or who does the choosing? Of course, imagining how non-human beings might interpret these pictures is an impossible task—hell, we don’t even know if such an audience would be capable of sight as we conceive it.
The presentation at Metro Pictures also includes some of Paglen’s work that is not a part of The Last Pictures but is nonetheless about seeing the unseeable. The first gallery houses what the artist calls his “skyscapes.” Using a telescopic lens, Paglen captures clandestine drone warfare, secret satellites, and an unconscionably large National Security Agency data center. But these are beautifully abstracted images—swirls of neon against a black background and soft gradients fading from apricot to white that conceal the nefarious stories behind them. His hazy photographs are not about uncovering a truth as much as they are a poetic comment on how difficult it is to ever know something, especially through an image.
But while The Last Pictures purports to be all about images, it is ultimately predicated on words. Commissioned by Creative Time, the project is in some ways the ultimate example of public art—soaring 24,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, a height that will keep it floating virtually forever—and in other ways the most private artmaking act, completely out of our reach. In order to make this unseeable endeavor accessible to the public, Paglen initiated a grand lecture tour last fall, extending from Los Angeles to Istanbul. And for the duration of this exhibition, Paglen is providing tours every Saturday at 3 pm with the exception of February 23.
It’s through his words, rather than his images, that he weaves the mesmerizing tale, employing extensive research and grandiose goals to seduce the audience. But there is a fine line between a storyteller and a charlatan. In the Metro Pictures exhibition, Paglen has included binders of email exchanges, graphs, notes, and other ephemera related to the exhibition. One paper, filled with quotes, anecdotes, and well-crafted prose, is covered with ball-point annotations slashing entire paragraphs or validating other parts with a simple QUOTE THIS. Here is Paglen the speechwriter, Paglen the raconteur, selecting his words carefully to construct a precise narrative around his work. Paglen may not be able to control how extraterrestrial life forms understand the last pictures billions of years from now, but he holds a masterful grip on the interpretation of his images today.