There's at once more and less than meets the eye. On the face of it, an atmospheric wash darkens from plasma to clotted blood. In between, the colors roil with a complexity suggesting vastness, calling to mind the Romantic sublime and a few of its heirs, from J. M. W. Turner's paintings of the night sky and Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of clouds to Mark Rothko's brooding color fields.
Underneath, however, Trevor Paglen's The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas), 2010, is pure Enlightenment. Electromagnetic imaging technology has rendered visible a small part of the United States' radar perimeter, ever vigilant against enemy missiles and foreign satellites. The aesthetic resonance of the outcome of this process takes on a certain irony. Rather than pointing to man's powerlessness in the face of nature's infinitude, the image calls out our own, more humbling insignificance to the vast and largely clandestine workings of our nation's so-called military-industrial complex.
Intelligence, in the international-espionage sense, along with its prostheses, seem to be at issue here, both in Paglen's subject matter and methods. His 2005-2007 Limit Telephotography series, for instance, ostensibly shows us classified military sites. Doing so, however, necessitated the use of telescopic lenses, since the closest possible approach to his tightly guarded subjects often left him as much as forty miles away. The images that resulted, some so distorted as to be nearly abstract, represent a kind of limit, reflecting our own carefully controlled ignorance via an augmented vision that nonetheless refuses answers.
Yet Paglen's work is much more than the mere aestheticization of the American military's covert “black world.” On the contrary, there are few artists who have responded as rigorously or eloquently to the expansion of American defense and intelligence in the wake of 9/11. A look at his book Torture Taxi, an investigation of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program co-authored with A. C. Thompson, shows a tactical thread that unites his unusually diverse practice. With a journalist's irascibility, Paglen butts against the limits of transparency, revealing blank spaces whose very geography serves as a more sweeping indictment of abuses of power than any particular smoking gun.
(Image: Trevor Paglen, The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas), 2010; Courtesy Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco.)