Arts & Culture
This is Not An Institutional Critique: Artpace’s IAIR 13.2
Published: July 24, 2013
In the adjoining gallery, Trevor Paglen continues to assert himself as one of the most atypical conceptual realists since the late, lamented Mark Lombardi. Like Lombardi, Paglen traces connections that compress the world in soberly nihilistic ways; however, rather than simply documenting and aestheticizing government conspiracies, covert ops, shady surveillance practices and the like, Paglen now openly partakes in the engineering of reality. Take, for example, his recent project commissioned by Creative Time and realized via the Visiting Artists Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The Last Pictures (2012). After years of consulting with artists, engineers, historians, philosophers and scientists, Paglen selected 100 photographic images that were subsequently micro-etched onto a disk and launched into space aboard a geostationary satellite, set to orbit at an altitude with no atmospheric drag. Hypothetically, once the craft has fulfilled its primary commercial function, the secondary payload—Paglen’s project—will orbit the Earth in perpetuity. Take a moment to appreciate the inherent duality—the twisted optimism and blatant determinism—of this gesture. Floating in a belt crowded by devices beaming thousands of channels of televised tripe or covertly monitoring our movements is one seemingly innocent carrier of modern hieroglyphics. If the craft does not malfunction, it could remain in orbit for billions of years—a silent witness to the demise of our society and, perhaps, the planet itself—or be intercepted before our sun goes supernova, dispensing one man’s impressions of our world to an undisclosed recipient. The possibilities are maddening.
After years of transmuting modern anxiety into artistic tropes, with The Last Pictures Paglen has, arguably, succeeded in inventing his own ontology. Following that logic, his installation at Artpace, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 2, Build 1) feels like a natural progression. Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite is a work-in-progress, part of an ongoing series represented here by schematic drawings, a short video loop and a massive metallic bloom—a sculpture meant for outer space, but visible from the Earth—that dominates the gallery. It is difficult to ignore the formal aspects of the object, which is precisely the point. This secondary payload would, in essence, aestheticize man-made matter that already occupies the night sky. This is not an abandonment of past practices involving video and satellite surveillance as content, but a new way of sublimating provocation and drawing attention to the shady practices of the military-industrial complex, which Paglen is clearly prone to do—and does so very, very well.
Upstairs, Pak Sheung Chuen’s installation awaits quiet contemplation. Pak’s practice is experiential and highly personal, often coupling the artist’s daily encounters and observations with subtle actions and interventions. During the mid 2000s, Pak maintained a weekly column in the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, which ranged from short-form writing and photographic documentation of performances and actions to interventions presented solely on the printed page.