Sunday, July 20, 2008

Meditative Reconaissance

Explicitly political art is hard. You know, all that doxa. I've only ever been able to like the work of two or three really clearly political artists. The first, a Filipino-American artist whose name I can't remember (Bloody catholic bloody blood and crazed madness) and then Mark Lombardi. I loved __________ art for it's extremity. Unlike, say, I don't know, Andres Serrano, there wasn't any distance, but ___________ had a real sense of line, and drips, and had a bit of comic book profanity in there. I wish I could remember his name. Lombardi, on the other hand, is all irony and coolness, and his diagrams are so balanced, so sane and classical, that they mimicked conspiratorial logic, with its aura of inevitability, while all the time being cool, so cool, about subjects that nobody who's not in a suit is cool with, except investigative journalists. Poltical art's got to be done now, though - Brecht said something about there being certain times when it was impossible to write about trees...something like that. Oh god, then there's Peter Saul...oh gawd - is that political art? Or does it just hate you and me?

Trevor Paglen, whose show, "The Other Night Sky" is currently on display at the Berkeley Art Museum, describes the problem pretty succintly in a discussion of Lombardi:

"...(Lombardi's) work depicts networks of relationships. Visually, they appear to be homogenous or 'neutral.' The actual content of relationships he depicts remains obscure (or reduced to financial exchange.) If one imagines Lombardi's work as a didactic tool, I'm not sure that it's very helpful. I would argue that the work is politically misleading because his maps suggest some kind of order to the relationships he depicts when there are actually deep internal contradictions, not to mention much more going on 'outside the frame.'

...on the other hand, I think that Lombardi's work succeeds as 'art' precisely for the reasons it fails as didactic work. I very much like the work when I view it in a more fantastical (as opposed to didactic) way."

It seems to me that Paglen is trying to deal with the "fantastic-gap" in political art. His work consists of flatly paranoid photos of spy satellites flying through constellations The BAM exhibit has about 10 large c-print photos, and a hypnotic installation of a large spinning globe with projections of spy satellites in near earth orbit blinking all across its surface.

These photos are the nighttime version of Richard Misrach's parched desert light. Where Misrach's work is all about the effects of the secrets at night. Paglen's is about the unseen causes - rather than finding Lombardi's elegant curves and diagrams, he find straight lines, made by the secret satellites, looking and looking, as they pass through constellations, made of imagined lines depicting scenes from mythology, made permament through parallax and memory.

Why am I writing about this on the MM blog? I think this work is related to Mrs. Maybe in its effects, if not in its subjects. It stretches back to the oldest of activities - looking at all the little night lights looking down on us, making meaning out of the occluded. Instead of privileging the meaning-making of looking, this work takes part more in an occult 'putting together of pieces.' We have stars, and constellations; what we're looking for and at isn't the hint of an eternally vigilant god or lifeforce, but of government agencies and tech tech tech tech.

Endarkenment, then, is not only a function of the opposite of Enlightenment, it is also the mask under which the madness of daylight America grimaces, glares, and peers.

So, back to the sublime. Sublime surveillance, meditative reconaissance, the unknowable firmament, like everything else in the anthropocene, is full of your face and mine.


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