Washington, DC

Trevor Paglen, Gold Artifact, 2013, etched gold-plated disk, 4 7⁄8 × 4 7⁄8 × 3⁄8".

Trevor Paglen, Gold Artifact, 2013, etched gold-plated disk, 4 7⁄8 × 4 7⁄8 × 3⁄8".

Trevor Paglen

Smithsonian American Art Museum

In his famed description of Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin conjured an “angel of history” who is blown by the storms of progress into the future while facing backward toward the piling wreckage of the “catastrophe” that is the past. Tellingly, a photograph of the back of Klee’s work is the first picture on Trevor Paglen’s Gold Artifact, 2013. Shot into orbit on a communications satellite, the etched disc bears one hundred cynical images of and about humanity, which it almost certainly will outlast. Like Benjamin’s angel, Paglen surveys the visible and not-so-visible catastrophes—including those spurred, in the name of progress, by myriad technologies of surveillance and control—that gave rise to our present moment and are propelling us into an uncertain future.

Among the earliest bodies of work in “Sites Unseen,” Paglen’s first major survey, were projects that reflect his training as a geographer and his interest in the relationship between space, vision, and power (hence the exhibition’s punning title). These included “Limit Telephotography,” 2005–, and_ “_The Other Night Sky,” 2007–, two series of photographs of covert military structures and satellites that Paglen captured using high-powered cameras and computer-guided telescopes after painstaking research. His process effectively turns the apparatus of surveillance back on itself, thereby uncloaking the dialectic of secrecy and reconnaissance that underpins what he calls the “Terror State.”

While Paglen is known mostly as a photographer, the show also presented his “impossible objects,” including not only Gold Artifact but also Autonomy Cube, 2015, a clear, Minimalist box encasing hardware that allows local and remote users to surf the web anonymously, and Trinity Cube, 2016, a seductive sculpture made from irradiated glass from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site in Japan. The most recent works reflected Paglen’s interest in artificial intelligence and machine vision, especially in regard to their embeddedness in larger cultural discourses. The video Image Operations, 2018, translates data from the real-time monitoring of a performance by the Kronos Quartet string ensemble into visual effects. In this and other works, Paglen gives form to the technologies, such as facial-recognition software, that are being instrumentalized by increasingly invasive data banks.

With its activist ethos and reliance upon collaborations across disciplines, Paglen’s work as an artist often bleeds into other cultural realms, as when he contributed footage to Laura Poitras’s 2014 documentary on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, and launched his purposefully purposeless Orbital Reflector, 2018, on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. What his contemporaneity can obscure, but what this exhibition made clear, is that Paglen—like the angel of history—is also looking backward, transfixed by a history of representation (and exclusion) that includes the history of art, and above all the genre of landscape.

The fact that Paglen’s retrospective was organized by the federally funded Smithsonian American Art Museum is thus doubly apposite: What better “site” for a show that tackled the paradoxes and abuses sustaining both the US government and its landscapes? At one end, the exhibition spilled over into the permanent collection, where Paglen’s photograph DMSP 5B/F4 from Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation (Military Meteorological Satellite; 1973-054A), 2009, was installed next to Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1867. Though depicting the same scenic location in a Paiute reservation, Paglen’s photo has a lower horizon line, leaving an expanse of sky with streaks tracing the movement of a Cold War–era satellite that monitored weather patterns in the USSR and Cuba. In 2009, Paglen wrote in the pages of this magazine about his work being “yet another iteration” of frontier photography: In their own ways, both his and Sullivan’s photos of Pyramid Lake point to the ideological and physical violence—the historical “catastrophes”—that gave America its present form.