Do endless grids of Google images accurately describe our existence? And if so, will aliens like them? For his project "The Last Pictures" (2012), Trevor Paglen selected 100 images to represent our contemporary world. Teaming up with MIT, the artist had these images etched onto a silicon disc that was enclosed in a gold-plated aluminum container and sent into orbit on a satellite last fall.
Paglen's first exhibition at Metro Pictures consisted of 21 works, encompassing digital prints, projections, videos and ephemera. The first two galleries introduced the project via images that exemplified its spirit, among them a wry finger wag titled The End of the Space Age (2012), which shows a 2011 cover of The Economist with the eponymous cover line. Installed from floor to ceiling in a corner of the second gallery were 182 images that didn't make it onto the disc, including a Rorschach test, a Planet of the Apes still and a Japanese shunga painting of a woman making love to an octopus. A table in the middle of the room held a log of Paglen-penned notes and e-mails discussing his project's theoretical implications and logistics. In the final gallery, a projection, The Last Pictures, presented the images on the disc in pairs. Here, they had a search-engine redundancy—as though Paglen systematically downloaded images from the Web in order to upload them to the sky. A hypnotic video, EchoStar XVI in Gestationary Orbit (2013), offered the orbiting satellite's view of space: a blizzard of stars resembling a meteor shower. Shown on a small monitor, it would have been more gratifying as a large projection.
"The Last Pictures" is a riff on astronomer Carl Sagan's Voyager Golden Records, gold-plated records with sounds and images that were sent into space on the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977. Predating Sagan's project, artist Forrest Myers masterminded Moon Museum (1969), a ceramic wafer with small drawings by six famous artists, including Warhol, Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain. The wafer was supposedly smuggled onto Apollo 12 and deposited on the moon. Paglen's project doesn't merely reprise Sagan's, but forces us to consider what exactly goes on up in space. From television to GPS, we depend on satellites—yet their presence lacks a sensuous register. Paglen's videos and e-mail logs give satellites a more tangible existence.
"The Last Pictures" has garnered a lot of popular attention, and it might be the perfect Trojan horse to carry Paglen's more politically dense projects to a wider audience. For the last decade, the New York-based artist traveled to restricted locales to photograph the "black world" of classified military operations. These photographs, often taken with a telephoto lens, show hazy landscape images of locations like Area 51, as well as skyscapes of weaponized aircraft in flight. Among five elegant, Color Field-esque photographs on view was a large print, Untitled (Predator Drone), 2012, that recalls the melting creamsicle hues of a sunset. Within the image, though not perceptible, is the unmanned aircraft.
Paglen's work houses, rather than spills, the secrets of our military. As Paglen told the New Yorker, his pictures are "useless as evidence . . . they're a way of organizing your attention." Were Paglen's "black world" photographs more descriptive, they might render to the world a pictorial Wikileaks—and Paglen might acquire a persona more Assange than artist. Instead, Paglen's ghostly abstractions invite important questions, such as: if we allow our military to be invisible, does that mean we are a society that simply prefers not to look?
PHOTO: Trevor Paglen: The Last Pictures (Penultimate Collection), detail, 2013, 182 C-prints, notebooks, satellite model and mixed mediums; at Metro Pictures.