Hundreds gathered in New York's Bryant Park well before the seven P.M. start time yesterday for an evening devoted to "The Last Pictures," a new project by artist Trevor Paglen, sponsored by New York public art agency Creative Time. Paglen discussed the project with filmmaker Werner Herzog, following a reading by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith.
Paglen's piece consists of files for 100 images, engraved on a disc, to be launched into space on a satellite, probably sometime next year ("rocket launches are a moving target," Paglen admitted) from a site in Kazakhstan. The project's central conceit is that perhaps some alien life form will come across the satellite and read the images—a prospect that, Paglen admitted during the discussion, is absurd.
Smith started things off by reading poems, some from her Pulitzer-winning 2011 book Life on Mars, which concern a fascination that, she said, had long been private. She was gratified to see it brought into the realm of public art, she told the crowd. The poem My God, it's full of stars includes the line "Perhaps the greatest error is thinking we're alone." Space might be chock full of traffic, the poem goes on to say: "I want it to be one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial."
Next, Paglen introduced "The Last Pictures" with a brief slideshow. He described the huge number of satellites orbiting the earth as a man-made ring like those around Saturn—a permanent circle of machines.
The artist showed a Lascaux cave painting of a bison and a hunter with what appears to be an erection, offering his admittedly imaginative interpretation: it was painted by a woman as a message for viewers far in the future. It depicts the erotic charge man was taking, Paglen suggested, in wiping out an entire species.
Talking about his own project as a sort of cave painting for future viewers, the artist said, "This is not a portrait of humanity. But there are nodes." Some of the images, he said, are about vision, and he showed slides of optic devices and mirrors. Some are about language and its failures, and he showed images of texts. Some depict transformations humans have made to the surface of the earth; he showed farms. Others are poetic, he said, like an image of a field of flowers in Siberia.
Paul Holdengräber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, then came onstage to moderate a discussion between Paglen and Herzog. It was all he could do to keep up.
Throughout the discussion, Herzog vacillated between good-naturedly ridiculing aspects of Paglen's project—one that the artist himself cheerfully described as ridiculous—and warmly praising it.
Regarding Paglen's interpretation of the cave painting, for example, the filmmaker intoned, "I don't buy it. I do not buy that it was a woman. It could have been a man. There's a 50-50 chance." And these people had no idea about extinction. And it might not be an erection. And so on.
"But that's the beauty of your project. It's meant for us. There will never be an alien coming by," he said, softening his complaints. And of the book that accompanies the project, which collects all the photographs, he said, "This is one of the most beautiful books I've held in my hands in a long time."
Back to the playful mockery. Calling up an image of an Occupy Hong Kong protest, Herzog got hearty laughs from the audience: "Who cares about [the Occupy Wall Street movement] from the Andromeda nebula?"
Discussing an image of a smiling Japanese-American girl in an American WWII internment camp, Herzog again got laughs: "I don't trust smiles. The universe knows no smiles. [The universe] is hostile and ugly."
Paglen agreed. "For me, this is maybe the most disturbing image in the whole collection." He said it recalled for him a passage in which writer Primo Levi describes a soccer game between Jews and their jailers in a concentration camp. It's not an illustration of humanity, Levi says; it's the very image of evil.
Changing gears, the discussants turned to the image of the Mona Lisa. Holdengräber recalled that Herzog hoped, on first being asked to participate in the evening's discussion, that the painting would not be included among the images on the disc. To the satisfaction of the art historians in the crowd, Herzog lobbied for more obscure choices: "I would prefer to send Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, or something by Hercules Seghers."
The conversation came back, frequently, to questions about whether aliens would ever find the satellite, much less be able to decipher the pictures. ("Do the aliens have eyes? Do they care about art? I wouldn't overburden them with art," Herzog counseled.) But for the artist as well as the filmmaker, the images ultimately work best as a mirror. Paglen asked, ultimately, "When we look at something that is alien to us, that is beyond our comprehension, what do we see but ourselves?"
After Holdengräber asked Herzog to read Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" ("Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"), the audience got a chance to test Paglen's theory that looking at the incomprehensible, we see only ourselves. Members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York were on hand with telescopes to allow viewing of the night sky—the future home of Paglen's satellite. As if the rest of the New York night around them weren't enough, that sky was a fitting tribute to all that is beyond our understanding.
Photo: Paul Holdengraber, Trevor Paglen and Werner Herzog. By Sam Horine.