Written by John Camp
The Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, is near a major intersection a few blocks from my Pasadena home, so I have the privilege of being able to stop by on a whim, and often do. And, often as not, I stick my nose into the bookstore to see if there's anything new since my last visit.
On a Friday last August, I came up with a curious photographic book called The Last Pictures, by Trevor Paglen, an accumulation of one hundred photographs that could be, sometime in the distant future, literally the last existing pictures of humankind.
The photographs, which the book says have been "etched into an ultra-archival silicon disk nestled inside a gold [plated] shell" will be attached to the Echostar XVI satellite. The satellite was scheduled to be launched into a stable geosynchronous orbit last November, according to the information I could find on the net. According to the book, the satellite could remain aloft for literally billions of years; or, for only a few seconds, depending on how well the rocket works—this last being my observation, not that of the book.
A lot could be written about the book, not all of it flattering.
Trevor Paglen, according to the blurb on the back flap, is "an internationally recognized artist, writer and scholar working across multiple disciplines in a variety of media."
The back cover, under the headline "Praise for Trevor Paglen," has three quotes: "Awe-inspiring…timely…Paglen's art matters," from Artforum; "Paglen’s own life experience and academic training reflect the blurred boundaries so widely celebrated as a new media hallmark of contemporary art," from the L.A. Times; and "Brilliant," from New York Magazine.
Further excavations on Wiki reveal that he has an M.A. in fine art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in geography from U.C. Berkeley. The Wiki does not say exactly what form of art he worked with at Chicago. His projects, published in three previous books, tend to deal with military-involved secrecy in the U.S., apparently with some geographic considerations in most of them. From the descriptions of those other books, they sound quite interesting. You can get all this other information, including titles of his books and so on, by checking his entry in the Wiki.
• • •
So, to The Last Pictures.
A book begins with a brief, interesting but somewhat rambling discussion of time, and how the human concept of time has changed over the centuries. In the first few tens of thousands of years of human experience, time was local and tended to be short and fractured. "Deep time" and "universal time" were discoveries and inventions that humans made only fairly recently. But given the concept of "deep time," the question arises, can we, humans of the early 21st century, send graphic images into the future, much as unknown ancient ancestors of ours did with the Cave at Lascaux?
The answer is, well, yes, we can do that, and, in fact, a number of highly technological efforts in that direction have already been made—efforts to build warning signs of nuclear waste dumps that would last thousands of years; images and even music sent off on deep space probes; and so on.
Paglen's effort, then, was to find a way to project an aesthetic impulse from our time, out over the centuries and millennia and eons. He hit upon attaching contemporary 20th and 21st century images, suitably engraved upon a resilient, space-worthy medium, to a satellite whose time in orbit may extend out billions of years, ending only when the sun becomes a red giant and sucks up everything attached to earth.
His route to this decision is covered in the books' lead essay, which will not be further reviewed here, other than to say that there are some rather curious plums in this pudding, such as an apparent hostility to the concept of pi; the belief that mathematics is basically anthropogenic and thus cannot be used to create a universal language; and the information that Nature magazine has withdrawn valid scientific papers because of industry pressure.
• • •
In any case, Paglen winds up choosing one hundred photographs to send into the future, assuming, of course, that the rocket doesn't do a face-plant.
To me, the interesting thing about these photos is that given the same project, I wouldn't have chosen a single one of them.
With some of them, I agree with the idea, but I feel the image is either poor or non-representative. Others, I think are nonsense, like the photo of the back of a painting by Paul Klee.
Understand, none of these photos are "famous." They were chosen to be a kind of slide show of our times…a rocket blasting off into orbit; a wave breaking over a pier during a typhoon; illegal immigrants seen through a camera on a Predator drone; some electron micrographs; Leon Trotsky’s brain, clutched in somebody’s hands, apparently taken during the autopsy; stills from not-very-good movies; a "study of perspective" in which the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei gives the finger to the Eiffel Tower; a snapshot of an Occupy demonstration; a number of photos involving atomic weapons; a Union Carbide advertisement entitled "Bringing Science to India," a reference I think might elude many people even now, much less in a billion years.
All the photos are in black-and-white, and many are not what you would call "good." The thing to keep in mind, however, is that this is an art project, not a conventional photographic book.
The questions that plague me are, "Does this achieve any kind of goal?" followed by, "Is it necessary that a goal be achieved?" And, "Is there an aesthetic that is eluding me here?" or is the thing just dumb?
Paglen doesn't seem dumb, though he says things that are, in my opinion, dumb, though who doesn't do that occasionally?
In any case, I've read the book through twice in one day, and I just can't decide: Is it really deep? Or is it really bullshit?
The book is here, and for eighteen bucks or so, and, I promise, will give you something to think about, even if you send it out the next day with the garbage.
©2013 by John Camp / All Rights Reserved
[Ed. Note: I am toying with a slight change of format, to highlight the authorship of our posts somewhat, owing to the fact that readers inconsistently notice who writes what.]
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
bill vann: "I've seen way too much 'acclaimed art' crap to bother any further. Thanks for the post, seriously, saved me wasting my time, the only irreplacable gift the good Lord gave us. well kind of."
SerrArris: "A book that one reads twice in one day is (in my eyes) definitely worth every cent and should not be thrwon into the garbage. For sure, if you read it twice in such a short time, in a short period you'll feel the urge read it again. I'll definitely have a look at it (that I have deep respect for the other works of Paglen just adds to the words you wrote)."
Hans Muus: "Of one thing we can be absolutely shure, I think, and that is that this art project is meant for us, here and now. And that includes the geostationary move. SF-like speculations miss the point entirely, if you ask me."
Bear.: "Re your ed. note, all of TOP's readers are exceedingly clever, as well as good looking; so we always notice whom has written what."
Mike replies: Thanks for reminding me!