The history of human endeavor is littered with absences, alternately deliberate or unintentional. And yet these gaps in the record invariably serve a purpose. It is difficult to imagine Neoclassical sculpture, for instance, absent their creators' belief that ancient statuary lacked pigment. Or the notion that the Gospel of Mark, as written by its original author, does not end with Christ's resurrection and ascension, but rather with the fright of the apostles at His empty tomb. Given a lack of information, or information that is somehow lacking, societies supplant their own reasoning into that absence. “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” the only contemporary document giving voice to Nat Turner, a black man who led the only successful slave rebellion in the United States, is a roughly twenty-page document widely believed to have been coerced in a courthouse jail cell. Over a hundred years later, William Styron would write the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, a vast re-imagining of Turner's physical and emotion world. Styron, writing in the civil turmoil of the mid-1960s, knowingly called the book less a historical novel, than a “meditation on history.”
Such attempts to flesh out the negative spaces bequeathed to us need not be so weighty. The ways in which paleontologists continue to imagine the lives of dinosaurs is a case in point. Bones, after all, provide only limited testimony. What color was the brontosaurus? Did the velociraptor have feathers? How fast did T. Rex run? Lacking modern-day clones, it's almost impossible to know for sure, but we impose upon the the factual gaps anything from the ferocity of Jurassic Park to the purple benevolence of Barney.
Contemporary art often explores this notion through more deliberate means, actively cultivating the opaque, or willfully obscuring the known, to suggest the vicissitudes of memory or the uses of truth. The photographer Trevor Paglen, whose solo exhibition “Unhuman” is on view at Altman Siegel though April 2, suggests something even more specific. His deeply compelling visions of the sublime are channeled through a vast and shadowy network of military spy satellites, unmanned drones, and desert testing grounds. By working at great distance, literally shooting his photos miles from his subjects, Paglen gives form to a largely redacted reality. It is only a version of truth, of course, and a partial one at that. But they are a statement or a reality—of an existence—where before there was none.
By filling in the blanks, human societies fulfill a fundamental desire to create their own stories. Modernism unleashed a vast reexamination of what elements might be included in that endeavor, but the urge remains. Without histories, societies are adrift. Lacking the proper dictionary with which to fill in the lexical gaps left by those who came before, we fudge the facts, make up answers, and create anew.
(Images: Trevor Paglen, Artifacts (Spacecraft in Perpetual Geosynchronous Orbit,
35,786 km Above Equator), 2010 , [Detail, part two of diptych] , C-print, 50 x 40 in. Trevor Paglenm Untitled (Predators; Indian Springs, NV), 2010, [Detail], C-print, 60 x 48 in.)