Friday, April 22, 2016

The Black World

I did a post here back in 2010 about Trevor Paglen, the artist-geographer who has explored the 'black world' of US military and intelligence agencies.  I focused then on his 'limit telephotography' in which restricted landscapes, cut-off and unseeable with the naked eye, can be glimpsed using high-powered telescopes.  Today I popped into an excellent small exhibition of his work to coincide with the Deutsche Börse prize (like the exhibition of Richard Mosse photographs I described here two years ago).  Three exhibits of particular interest from a landscape perspective:
  • They Watch the Moon (2010), which you can see above in the window of the Photographers Gallery, is a beautiful vista of hills completely covered in rich green vegetation.  At their centre, a constellation of artificial lights and the dishes of telescopes arranged in a circle like orbiting moons.  In an essay on Paglen's work, 'Visiting the Planetarium: Images of the Black World', Brian Holmes has written of this photograph that whilst we may see in it something grand, an image of the cosmic relation of earth and sky, in fact 'the radio telescope depicted is devoted to banalities: it picks up stray cell-phone conversations bouncing off the lunar surface from halfway around the globe.'
  • Untitled (Reaper Drone) 2010, is just as visually stunning: a late-Turner swirl of yellow light - the desert sky near Las Vegas - and caught in the image the tiny silhouette of military drone.  This series of photographs, the curators explain, are achieved with a large-format camera trained on the sky: 'when the film is developed, small insect-like drones are peppered throughout the images.'  There is another, Untitled (Predators), not in the exhibition, which could be a high cirrus sky over Suffolk - an ominous contemporary version of Constable's cloud studies.
  • NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Marseilles, France (2015) partly comprises another large-scale landscape photograph, juxtaposed with a nautical map onto which various diagrams and images have been pinned like the visual prompts on a crime investigation board.  The view of rocky islands in the bay of Marseilles inevitably brings to mind The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel that features surveillance, secret locations, political plots and, here where the NSA-tapped cable came ashore, the fortress prison where the novel's hero is cut off from all communication with the outside world. 

Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Marseilles from L'Estaque, c. 1885
(a postcard of this painting is one of the items Paglen has attached to the map of Marseilles)

Having written this I see that the Photographers Gallery have just today posted an interview with Paglen on their website.  In this clip, embedded here, he talks in front of the map of Marseille about the way his work aims to make visitors look at the world more closely and more suspiciously.

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