PRINT April 2015


Trisha Baga’s The Great Pam

Spread from Trisha Baga’s The Great Pam, 2014, bound paper, 8 × 10 1/2".

The Great Pam, by Trisha Baga. Berlin: Edition Société, 2014. 232 pages. Edition of 120.

TRISHA BAGA IS FLUENT in the emotional manipulation of popular culture. From Madonna to Plymouth Rock to American Beauty, the artist channels and contorts the manufactured affect of mass culture in her immersive videos, installations, and performances. And if her environments are often overwhelming, with maximal arrays of information being emitted by screens and sounds and objects, they nevertheless deploy their cultural clichés with pinpoint accuracy, situating the viewer not only in a specific historical moment but also at a precise point along a narrative arc. It’s fitting, then, that for her most recent artist’s book, Baga has cannibalized one of the most classic American tales: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sordid and violent chronicle of the Roaring Twenties.

At first glance, The Great Pam looks like any other well-worn paperback. But on closer inspection, the tome is clearly a hardcover facsimile of an old Gatsby, with the telltale image of a piece of masking tape bearing the word PAM on its wrinkled surface—transforming the name of the titular character into that of Baga’s sister. The Great Pam reproduces, from front to back—although not always to scale—Scribner’s 1995 ten-dollar edition of the novel, found in high school classrooms nationwide. The artist’s manipulations appear minimal at first and recall the damage that schoolbooks endure shoved to the bottom of backpacks or lockers. The edges of the pages are stained, as if from an errant leaky pen, and bits of paper, rubber bands, and gum wrappers drift over and past the familiar text.

As Fitzgerald’s narrative builds, so do Baga’s interventions. More desk detritus appears upon the spread pages, joined by floating, impasto brushstrokes of paint, celebrity tabloid photos, potato-chip bags, and ceramic sculptures. The paperback, at first aligned with the physical object, recedes into all of this stuff, becoming another character rather than the mostly readable ground of Fitzgerald’s book. We are not so far from Baga’s work in video: Animated through the turning of pages, the book’s recurring motifs drift around the increasingly obscured words; in one example, a photo of Baga’s dog shifts ever so slightly across a handful of spreads, like a flip-book. The novel itself seems to swirl away, getting lost first on the floor, then in the chaos of the artist’s studio, then in darkness, projected light occasionally piercing through and revealing distant text, before returning to align with the parameters of the artist’s book just in time for Gatsby’s funeral, flooded with pastel watercolor. Baga’s additions echo the sickening excess of Gatsby’s world; when Fitzgerald writes that Gatsby “literally glowed” when looking at Daisy, the page is dotted with rhinestones. Through all of this chaos, the physical book remains both a bystander to and a participant in the journey, perversely embodying its narrator, Nick Carraway, guiding the reader through beauty and destruction.

Even as every page holds an overwhelming sense of her bright, tumultuous aesthetic, Baga composed this book in absentia. She hired a friend, artist Nick Parker, to act as graphic designer. Through ongoing conversations, Baga gave Parker a script of sorts (a sense of compositional and tonal shifts to guide the rhythm of the book) and actors (a quantity of detritus on her computer and in her studio amassed after recent projects) with which to design the project. Parker scanned the original paperback in Baga’s studio, with and among her things, while she was away.

The world Baga creates in her art—with its immersive exuberance constructed from the projected and physical clutter of an artist’s production—reflects the synaesthetic and synthetic experience of contemporary life. The constant inundation of screens, noise, and matter both constitutes and confounds our sensory experience of the physical world. If the artist’s installations have externalized this phenomenon by breaking the fourth wall of the projected image through the interference of objects, mirrored refractions, and 3-D simulations, this book returns to the world of the mind. Not unlike Paul Thek and Edwin Klein’s A Document, 1969, which mixed Polaroids of Thek’s studio with three-dimensional objects and magazine clippings on newspaper spreads, the book becomes an archive of projects and interests. And it repositions Baga as director, as well as auteur, of her compositions.

Baga’s amendments to Gatsby act as twenty-first-century marginalia. Rather than annotating the text with handwritten thoughts, she comments by way of digitally manipulated images. Baga’s intervention suggests that we now inevitably experience the act of reading as a mise en abyme of collected references. But The Great Pam moves beyond the now common celebration—or lamentation—of the analog-to-digital progression. Instead, Baga reminds us that the relationship between a book and its reader is intimate and personal, a kind of mental collaboration. The force of the artist’s annotations is not one-sided: Gatsby asserts its own power on her accumulations, acting as organizing principle for this flotsam of Internet-culture accessibility, taming the endless stream into a comfortably familiar narrative arc, one legible even when the words themselves are completely obscured.

Toggling between immersive, hyperactive distraction and quiet, contemplative space, she sucks us into her fiction. The Great Pam allows the reader to see this all-too-familiar tale with the details stripped away, leaving the residue of the recurring tragedy and “orgastic future”—to quote Gatsby’s famous conclusion—of the American dream.

Elisabeth Sherman is a senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.