PRINT Summer 2000


“To see [Michael Jordan] soar through the air, a sparkling, shiny creature traveling at the speed of light, landing in every first, second, and third world city all at once, is to understand you play a minor role in a very big game. . . . His reach defines the meaning of community in the television age.” With these words, Paul Pfeiffer establishes his arena: the global economy of the spectacle that is today’s superstar. Pfeiffer’s earlier photo-based installations often dealt with his Filipino and gay identity; during graduate school at Hunter College in the early ’90s, he was involved more in the local chapter of Act Up! than in the art world. Lately he has turned his attention to the technology of representation, to the multiplication, restructuring, and distribution of human images. But as the evocation of His Airness demonstrates, Pfeiffer has not abandoned his investigations of identity. Focusing on the phenomenon of the sports star and Hollywood super-celebrity as well as the cross-cultural communities of fans who watch them on TV and movie screens, he explores not only the constructed identity of the famous but also our own invasion by the technological.

At the Whitney Biennial, Pfeiffer presented a pair of tiny, looped digital projections that shrink the image of the filmed celebrity to a pocket-size icon of concentrated motion, as small as the star is big. In Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), 1999, continuous, silent repetition of one moment on the basketball court turns the presumably victorious yell of Knicks forward Larry Johnson into an almost inhuman scream of terror or rage. Pfeiffer takes on the star as a test case for mechanization, manipulation, distortion—even sacrifice, as the title hints. Across the room, in The Pure Products Go Crazy, 1998, Tom Cruise as Joel Goodson in Risky Business wiggles his tighty-whities in a perpetual loop of a moment from the famous air-guitar scene. The “pure product” (the title references the William Carlos Williams poem) is Cruise himself, an icon of desirability with broad demographic appeal: Among his fans number teenage girls, gay men, even Andrew Cunanan, whose obsession with the actor may have waxed homicidal. Helplessly writhing on a couch, Cruise is infantilized and faceless. With this installation, Pfeiffer has set up a face-off between cultural stereotypes: Johnson as potent “other,” Cruise as passive “product.”

Technology represents modernity’s monsters; it also creates its own, Dr. Frankenstein–like. Of the quintessential Chicago Bull, Pfeiffer notes, “Like the scientist-turned-insect in the sci-fi classic The Fly, Jordan is an experiment in human evolution: an exceptional talent re-packaged and distributed by Turner Sports and David Stern; grafted with 16M parts Nike, 5M parts Bijan Cologne, 5M parts Gatorade, 4M parts MCI WorldCom, and 2M parts Rayovac Battery.” In Perspective Study (After Jeremy Bentham), 1998, Pfeiffer juxtaposes the genres of still life, science fiction, social commentary, and the macabre. Here, a specimen box displays thirty real and artificial flies (traditional signifiers of death and decay) whose heads have been replaced with tiny magazine-cutout faces of the 1997–98 most valuable players from each team in the NBA; in another version, Pfeiffer borrows faces from the Boys Choir of Harlem. Bodies of color, like those of women, have been cast paradoxically as both natural and less than human; Pfeiffer reworks this fraught territory. In , 1998, we see a white tent in the middle of a jungle diorama, recalling Joseph Conrad’s , the most famous allegory of the industrial invasion of the “natural.”

Like the Fly, like Frankenstein, like the Congo, we have been penetrated. Pfeiffer’s compelling phrase, “Technology is already deep inside you,” recalls Walter Benjamin’s notion that the movie camera performs an invasive surgical procedure, that film dehumanizes the actors, whose movements are edited, chopped up, and rebuilt. By digitizing his videos, emphasizing their jerky, repetitive quality, Pfeiffer calls attention to the invasiveness of his process. Another horror story from Pfeiffer: “I was 10 years old the first time I was possessed by the devil.” In the diorama Quod Nomen Mihi Est? (What is my name?), 1998, Pfeiffer taps , re-creating Regan’s bedroom in miniature. He uses possession as both a literal experience and a metaphor for W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “double consciousness”—the position of being simultaneously the self and the other.

Since the late nineteenth century, artists have absorbed the lessons of technology and then presented them to us as a taste of our own medicine. By adopting seemingly inexpressive, repetitive, or highly finished modes of painting, artists like Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, and David Reed articulate the ways in which modernity mechanizes and fragments individual human subjectivity. Their work appears almost affectless, yet ironically their processes are extremely labor-intensive. Like these artists, Pfeiffer makes a show of removing his subjectivity while investing himself intensely in his work: It can take him four months to produce a scant two minutes of video.

Pfeiffer not only exploits his medium’s connotations of distance and coolness, he often banishes the human image altogether, raising the possibility of a very different artistic purpose and perspective. The title of John 3:16, 2000 (the biblical passage begins, “For God so loved the world”), evokes Christ—the ultimate “figure” in the European tradition of representational painting and the ultimate symbol of sacrifice—as well as a ubiquitous banner at sporting events. In this work, a basketball frenetically jerks through the air in 5,000 video stills taken from the 1995–96 NBA playoffs, the season that Michael Jordan came back to the league. There are no players in these tight shots, just the occasional hand, and the incessant movement of the ball within a constantly changing frame unsettles any consistent viewing position, effectively erasing the spectator along with the subject. In another figureless piece, Red Background, #1-3, 2000, Pfeiffer has digitally removed Marilyn Monroe from a trio of Bert Stern’s famous erotic photos of her; all that’s left is the wrinkled red backdrop or, in one case, an empty silhouette—her absence.

Pfeiffer is currently working on The Long Count, a video triptych based on Muhammad Ali’s legendary bouts in the United States, the Philippines, and the former Zaire (emphasizing Ali’s global media appeal). Using a computer program to condense the final round of each of these fights and remove the fighters, Pfeiffer underlines the interaction between pre-digital and digital technology, playing at showing and then hiding the evidence of his manipulation. We see the arenas, but the boxers have vanished, leaving only the traces of their erasure and the roar of the crowd. Knockout.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.