Trevor Paglen: Impossible Objects at Altman Siegel

Review

Trevor Paglen: Impossible Objects at Altman Siegel

By Gabrielle Gopinath May 8, 2018

The works of art in Trevor Paglen’s fourth solo exhibition at Altman Siegel in San Francisco relate to his Orbital Reflector (2015–ongoing) project, which aims to put an art satellite in orbit. The project, undertaken by Paglen in collaboration with a team of aerospace engineers and the Nevada Museum of Art, and scheduled to culminate with the satellite’s launch later this year, proposes a satellite that will orbit the planet every 92 minutes and be available as an aesthetic object to the naked eye: “aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering’s sake,” as one of Paglen’s titles puts it. When Orbital Reflector speeds across the sky, observers will see a point drawing a bright line that continually erases itself, mimicking the progress of a small comet.

Trevor Paglen. INTRUDER 12A in Vulpecula (Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 274), 2017; dye sublimation print, white semi-matte; 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel. 

Unlike the rest of the more than 1,400 satellites now orbiting the earth, Orbital Reflector is conceived of as an object to be viewed. The sculptures suspended from the ceiling at Altman Siegel are satellite prototypes. Their inflectionless surfaces are chromed or lacquered white; one is shaped like a truncated pyramid, another like a torus, and a third like intersecting discs. The drawings on display are likewise artifacts of the research process. Some are made on German drafting paper, others on sketchbook pages; all are floated under glass to show off the paper’s raw edge.

Trevor Paglen. Orbital Reflector (Scale Model), 2018; mylar, aluminum, solar panels, and tape; 1200 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel. 

Debris-Sat Concept (2015), a near-Suprematist drawing of volumes in space, renders three-dimensional forms so that they seem to come shooting out of the ambient void. A smudged footprint rests atop it: sprezzatura. One drawing titled Comet Sat Concept (2011) bears the caption, "compressed CO2, H20 and nucleating agents combine in massive low-density 'snowball.'" The reference points Paglen has put into play include bird’s eye views that reprise images the Russian constructivists made, inspired by the then-new technology of flight, as well as the photographic practices of 1960s conceptualists, who showed that the meaning of a picture could be derived from what it failed to reveal.

Trevor Paglen. AQUACADE/RHYOLITE 3 in Libra (Signals Intelligence; OPS 4258), 2017; silver gelatin LE print; 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel. 

Most of the large photographs belonging to the ongoing series The Other Night Sky (2010—ongoing) are long-exposure nocturnal depictions in which light-dark values have been reversed; the sky’s black is rendered pale, while points of the firmament appear like grainy specks within the frame. This inversion effect turns space into a page. The paths the satellites traveled during the film’s exposure become visible in the form of dark, ruler-straight line segments, mostly oriented perpendicular to the sweep of the stars.

Trevor Paglen. INTRUDER 6A in Sagittarius (Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 173), 2017; silver gelatin LE print; 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel. 

While much of Paglen’s earlier works celebrated photography’s documentary power, the pictures in this series unmask their own artificiality. Their long exposures generate effects reminiscent of those common in photography’s early decades, where the blur—here, the ruler-straight line—becomes a tell. In both cases, the image encompasses a highly visible artifact of process; photographers of the 1840s and ’50s sought to limit these disruptions, mindful of the way they punctured verisimilitude, while Paglen’s pictures redefine the glitch as feature. Stars are black, night sky is white. These pictures come from a place of skepticism regarding photography’s ability to package truth, not to mention skepticism regarding the truthfulness of vision itself. Rejecting straight documentation in pursuit of compelling imagery, Paglen’s works in Impossible Objects challenge viewers to reimagine the outer reaches of earth’s atmosphere as a zone for exploration and creativity. They propose a utopian alternative, in which aerospace research and development might be used for purposes other than those connected with nation-state aggression and defense.

Trevor Paglen: Impossible Objects was on view at Altman Siegel in San Francisco through May 5, 2018. 

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