From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you a review of Trevor Paglen’s current exhibition at Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco. Author John Zarobell writes, “[The work] represents both a bit of art-historical posturing and an active response to government surveillance that allows viewers to imagine an alternative to our current condition. Perhaps a gallery is as good a place as any to begin planning the revolution.” This article was originally published on April 2, 2015.
Trevor Paglen’s career has taken off like a spy satellite. He has become a key political artist of our time, despite the fact that his larger project is to represent something quite difficult to depict visually—namely, government secrecy. His work draws our attention to (if it does not always actually reveal) the network of sites, operations, and practices on which our government spends our tax dollars in the name of protecting us. The arrival of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in the popular consciousness, and all of the related revelations that subsequently emerged, have only made Paglen’s work seem more prescient and relevant. His fascinations are now our fascinations. And so Paglen, whose contributions to the 2014 Snowden documentary Citizenfour recently won him the right to share an Oscar, finds himself a standard-bearer for committed political art.
Paglen is interested in the landscape and the things our government likes to hide there. As artworks, his photographs and videos are usually without incident and gesture toward conceptual aesthetics—aren’t we all Duchampians now? In his latest show at Altman Siegel Gallery, Autonomy Cube (2014), a computer server encased in a Plexiglas cube, is poised on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery. The piece toys formally with Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain (1917) and the minimalist cubes of Robert Morris and so many others. Like many previous works by Paglen, for instance his pictures of secret government sites that can barely be perceived because they are so incredibly distant, or of satellites so tiny and far away that all we apprehend is the beautiful night sky, Autonomy Cube manifests the gap between the desire to expose something sinister and the desire to produce something visually cool and oblique. The distance between the work and its meaning is odd, even uncomfortable. That is the point.