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Showing the Unshowable

Mike Newton Feb 22

The Last Pictures
Trevor Paglen
Metro Pictures
519 W. 24th St.
Through March 9

I can see the night-lit airfield, the solemn men in military garb, the flag-draped coffin; just Google “Staff Sergeant Phillip A. Myers” and you’ll see it, too. The documenting of Myers’ coffin as it returned from Afghanistan in 2009 marked the end (for now) of the government’s ban on photographing the caskets of dead soldiers as they return to U.S. soil. While the ban had been in effect since 1991, it is perhaps most strongly associated with the second Bush administration, and with the vociferous rage and whispered, fearful secrecy that seems to have defined the country in those years immediately after 9/11. At a time when the world was growing increasingly more saturated with images, the U.S. government was expanding its abilities to conceal and redact, increasing the military and building up the “black world” of (why mince words?) torture sites and killing machines that most of us can only hope we never see.

This is the world in which Trevor Paglen emerged as an artist, as someone who documents the undocumentable. Paglen holds both a PhD in geography and an MFA, and his artwork combines diligent research with poetic abstraction.

In his earlier work, for example, Paglen photographed officially unrecognized CIA “black sites” from far away: the images come to us bent and blotted by miles of heat and light. His current exhibition at Metro Pictures includes Untitled (Predator Drone) (2012): a lovely, large-scale photo of a desert sky, totally clear except for that odd little bug-like thing hovering in the corner. The show also features images of creepy contrails over restricted airspace and the shimmering nighttime orbits of old spy satellites. One of the exhibition’s more lucid images shows some sort of under-construction industrial facility in Bluffdale, Utah, part of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance infrastructure that will allow the government to harvest and monitor enormous amounts of data. But, even this image still feels abstract: an anonymous bunch of offices in the desert somewhere; shot at night, it feels unknowable even as a direct representation. In an October New Yorker profile, Paglen explains that he eschews technology that might make his photos more clear: without the allegory and suggestion that come with blurred, distant imagery, all you’d get is “a picture of a building.” Paglen’s work doesn’t just seek to tell us that these winged predators and torture chambers really exist; we already know they’re out there. Paglen is trying to convey how they exist: the barbed-wire secrecy and vague remove that allows a civil society to build monsters in the dark.

The exhibition is largely given over to The Last Pictures — a series of 100 images chosen by Paglen to be etched onto a golden disc and shot into space; Paglen worked with scientists to create an artifact that could last for billions of years, and the disc was attached to a satellite and launched in late 2012. If, in three billion years, some extraterrestrials come across the husk of our planet, Paglen’s project may indeed be the best/only record of our species’ time here. There’s the Tower of Babel, the Hoover Dam, a still from a Japanese science-fiction B movie and images relating to language, photography and art. The Last Pictures gets out of Paglen’s grasp a bit — for all his gifts, he may not be the perfect custodian for thousands of years of human history. But The Last Pictures is also a record of the present moment, a reflection on how the acts of seeing and being seen have been complicated by modern technology.

One of Paglen’s Last Pictures is a view of people through the “eyes” of a predator drone. Lately, drones have become a major subject of Paglen’s work, a direct referent to the modern security state, which, of course, shows no sign of dissipating any time soon. The Obama administration’s reversal of the ban on photographing soldiers’ flag-draped coffins was perhaps meant to symbolize a post-Bush era of institutional honesty, but the United States’ clandestine surveillance culture has only grown, becoming more quotidian, and, thus, more accepted. In a 2006 interview, Paglen said that he’s trying to show us “what the secret state looks like,” but in a sense, we already know what it looks like. We see it every day.