A search for patterns in the light - and dark

SECA: Trevor Paglen, Tauba Auerbach, and Jordan Kantor

A search for patterns in the light — and in the dark


Trevor Paglen's section of the 2008 SECA Art Award exhibition is somewhat centrally located — you have to pass through it to get to Jordan Kantor's room, as well as to a small room containing pieces by all four awardees. This positioning resonates, for Paglen is nothing if not conscious of maps and their meanings, and his contributions have visual connections to the other three artists. The dizzying, multicolored swirls of Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, a c-print from 2008, aren't far from Tauba Auerbach's post-op art graphics. The night skies in Paglen's photography aren't far from the deep blues and flaring lights of Kantor's 2008 oil-on-canvas Untitled (lens flare), where the painted camera effects are also suggestive of one of Kantor's Paglenesque earlier subjects, the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Such ties are helpful, because the flagrantly governmental subject matter and complicatedly political perspectives of Paglen's work make it too easy to downplay or ignore its artistic facets. The white spots of 2008's PARCAE Constellation in Draco (Naval Ocean Surveillance System, USA 160) are a photo-corollary to those found in Bruce Conner's lovely late-era ink drawings. (Like Paglen, the late Conner kept his eye on activities the U.S. hides in plain sight, and that awareness adds undercurrents to works of his that might otherwise be coded as purely spiritual.) When Paglen, from a mile away, uses a long-lens camera to uncover the ambiguous activities of an unmarked 737 in a black spot in Las Vegas, I'm reminded of the telescopic images of cruelty at the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1957 Salò. But unlike Pasolini, Paglen is far from being in full charge of the staging, so his seductive images can only blurrily hint at barbarism or sinister motive.

"Photography — and this is especially true after September 11 — is a performance," Paglen told Thomas Keenan in an Aperture article from last year. "To photograph is to exercise the right to photograph. Nowadays, people get locked up for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge." Paglen's pictures are the most successful portion of his SECA contribution — his presentation of emblematic Pentagon patches, while provocative and even aesthetically playful, raises (much like William E. Jones' so-called 2007 film Tearoom) problems of authorship. By looking up at the sky and revealing that it's looking back down at us, Paglen creates a grounded answer to the work of aerial photographers such as Michael Light, whose visions reorient one's perspective. Paglen isn't out to make you see clearly. He wants you to look deeper. And wonder. (Johnny Ray Huston)

For a review of Trevor Paglen's new book, Blank Spots on the Map (Dutton), see Lit, page 42.


Tauba Auerbach is shaking up her spin-off sphere of the so-called Mission School with optical investigations into that interzone between the figurative and abstract, representational systems and what they communicate, order and chaos. This Bay Area native — at 27, the youngest of the current SECA Award winners — was likewise shaken to the core as an eight-year-old during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "Actually I was at gymnastic class on Judah Street and on the uneven bars," she recalls by phone from New York City, where she now resides. "I was swinging from the low bar to the high bar when it just moved away from me and I fell. It was absolute chaos. Adults screaming conflicting instructions to us.

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