Galerie Thomas Zander is pleased to present new large format photographs by Trevor Paglen as well as his conceptual project The Last Pictures during which one hundred images were sent into space aboard a satellite. Alongside the selection of key images from The Last Pictures, photographic skyscapes with barely visible surveillance drones are on view. For about a decade Paglen (born 1974 in Maryland, lives and works in New York City) has documented covert surveillance and military operations of the U.S. government in his works. Due to current political developments this subject has once again become the center of public attention, making Paglen’s œuvre all the more topical. For years, the artist has photographed the secret satellites, now his work itself has become part of the orbit.
The Last Pictures was commissioned by the nonprofit organisation Creative Time and was realised during an artist-in-residence programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cooperation with numerous researchers. During almost five years of research the American artist composed an archive of one hundred pictures, resulting from conversations with artists, philosophers, historians, and researchers from diverse fields. Among the illustrations are historical documentary photographs, drawings, paintings, but also diagrams, mathematical equations, and other scientific representations. This selection is inspired by questions of how we understand life, the relations between vision, knowledge and power, the limits and possibilities of language, our relation to nature and the ways in which we try to control it. The collection is the visual expression of a critical look at the present, foreshadowing a precarious future of the earth. Particularly the images of tsunamis, factory farming, demonstrations, refugees or the microscopic enlargement of the Ebola virus present a more diversified view of the blue planet and counteract the Golden Records, which were sent into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977. The records contained visual and audio messages that were meant to convey a positive image of the earth to extraterrestrials. This kind of representation, however, was criticized from the beginning, because images of starving children, wars and diseases had simply been omitted. Culled from the archives of the world, The Last Pictures puts a focus on US history and culture with photographs of the American Pavillon at the 1959 world’s fair in Moscow, the effects of Agent Orange or the comic book mutant Captain America. Frequently, the images, which the artist refers to as fragments, are related to spaceflight, as for instance the futuristic colonisation of Mars or covert military operations in space. Works of other artists are also included like The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – a metaphor for the pride and fall of humankind – a theme with which the present is approached through the past.
An immanent reading of these representations is not always possible because their meaning is often inaccessible without an additional explanation. In outer space, however, the pictures stand for themselves, and exist without commentary or context. So they remain fragmentary and do not claim to constitute a complete description of our civilisation. Through his conceptual approach in The Last Pictures Trevor Paglen defines art as a sign system. His archive poses the question what message the image itself can carry. This arbitrary relation between representation and meaning lends Trevor Paglen’s project a significance that brings other groundbreaking works of conceptual art to mind, among them Hans-Peter Feldmann’s photo archives or the photographic series Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.
Researchers of the MIT developed an ultra-archival silicon disc, micro-etched with the one hundred pictures and encased in a gold-plated shell. In November 2012, the communications satellite EchoStar XVI was launched into geostationary orbit from Baikonur, Kazakhstan with the disc mounted to its anti-earth deck. There are already many relics of human life, since hundereds of satellites have been launched into the orbit within the last fifty years. Echo Star XVI is now in geostationary orbit and will transmit television signals until it will be switched off in 2027 and continues to circle the earth. According to current estimates, the sun will expand in about 4 billion years and destroy the life in our solar system. Then these one hundred pictures would be the last visual artefacts of our civilisation.
At first glance, Trevor Paglen’s collection of pictures in a golden box – made for a future when life on earth has ended – may be reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules or a futuristic message in a bottle. But above all it is a gesture that critically reflects on the grand gestures of this world. In the context of art, the project by the conceptual artist appears like an abstract experiment, which takes up discourses of aesthetic criticism and addresses structures of how we look at images and art.
Paglen’s works are collected by major international institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein. Exhibitions of his works are currently on view in Istanbul, Stockholm, Porto Alegre (Brasil) and Winterthur.