Trevor Paglen: Vision After Seeing


Are vision and seeing the same thing? Across a wide range of photographs, videos, and ambitious interstellar projects, Trevor Paglen has explored this essential question as it relates to the long history of technologies that have aided, and perhaps even eclipsed the human eye. These technologies range from the traditional, for example, the fifteenth-century technique of one-point perspective, to the contemporary, as in unmanned drones that record the world from a point-of-view the human eye cannot physically inhabit. Indeed, the limits of human vision are another essential theme for Paglen, who has consistently trained his camera on things that evade detection by the human eye, sometimes deliberately, as in the case of remote military sites and caches of NSA-tapped fiber optic cables, and sometimes by virtue of the eye’s physiological limits, as with the artist’s photographs of satellites whose traces are visible only with the aid of enhanced photographic technologies.

Although thoroughly contemporary in technique and subject matter, Paglen’s art is very much in dialogue with the history of art, particularly the genres of landscape and still life. The latter, which has been long associated with ideas of mortality and vanity, assumes an additional valence in the exhibition’s most recent work: Bloom (2020). Here, lush images of flowering trees have been colored by an artificially intelligent algorithm that assigned various, off-key hues to aspects of the blossoms to which the human eye would not, on its own, attend. At once familiar and strange, this is an image of the natural world, but as seen by an inhuman eye. 

Paglen’s mural-sized print of flowers sounds like an elegiac note at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and, as such, it resonates with the exhibition’s most modest object: a photograph of the packaged backside of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). Once owned by the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, it features a simplified rendering of a winged, wide-eyed figure, whom Benjamin memorably described, in 1940, as an angel of history. He is, on the philosopher’s account, blown by the storm of progress into a future to which his back is nevertheless turned. Paglen’s unforthcoming photograph of the back of Klee’s print again underscores the limits of vision, but in the process, it aligns our posture with that of the unseen angel – perhaps prompting us to look with equal urgency at the past, even as we are propelled into an unseeable future. 

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