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Critic's notebook: Art and modern warfare

Trevor Paglen focuses on the typically unseen aspects of conflict and military action.

September 10, 2010|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Paglen's unusual background has prepared him well for the uncommon projects represented by photographs of desert military installations, spent uranium fields, symbol-laden insignia designed for classified intelligence programs and secretly orbiting spacecraft documented in the book, his fourth. The artist, 35, is the son of an Air Force doctor who treated spy-plane pilots, and he grew up on various military bases. He holds a bachelor's in religious studies from UC Berkeley. That was followed by a master's of fine arts in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a doctorate in geography, also from Berkeley.

One result is that Paglen's own life experience and academic training actually reflect the blurred boundaries so widely celebrated as a new-media hallmark of contemporary art. Another is that his crisp studies of highly classified people, places and things are approached almost as documents for a parallel art world, complete with distinctive symbol-systems and an amorphous socio-cultural profile. Artists, geographers and theologians all engage in mapping unknown territories.

I think of the pictures in "Invisible" as surprising guides to America's darkest, most mysterious spiritual landscape. Titles of his three earlier books suggest the ongoing theme: "Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights" (written with investigative journalist A.C. Thompson), "I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me," and "Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World." Chunks of work in those books are included in "Invisible," the artist's first monograph.

Did you know that a secret runway at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport is used daily to shuttle civilian workers to an untold number of covert U.S. military bases in the otherwise seemingly empty Southwest desert? Looking at Paglen's pictures of airplanes shimmering in the heat on the tarmac, photographed from a distant hotel bedroom on the Strip, it's suddenly easy to believe that an estimated 4 million Americans — roughly 1 in 75 — hold a state security clearance of some sort. Think of it the next time you deplane on the way to your favorite casino.

Writer Rebecca Solnit, whose grim introductory essay to "Invisible" provides essential context, calls what Paglen does "seeing in the dark." The description is apt, especially when you consider that the artist can be photographing an otherwise unseen subject in the sky using only mathematical coordinates plotted on a map, or recording a shadowy ground installation 40 miles away from where he stands with his cumbersome camera and lenses — Carleton Watkins for a super-secret age.

Still, it's what happens in looking at his pictures that resonates. An eccentric image of concentric light-rings, tiers of blurred colors that show a remote weaponry testing site or a grinning face that graces an officially faked document each requires slow scrutiny to begin to comprehend. A viewer replicates what the artist did in making the photograph.

Even then, what you're seeing balances on a knife edge between an answer to a question you might not have known to ask and a whole new set of questions that suddenly opens up. Faith, in fact, may be the area of Paglen's primary accomplishment: When I look at my ancestor's military roster, I believe he did what it says he did — and I also believe that those arcs of light on Paglen's spy-satellite photograph represent what the artist says they do.

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