Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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  • JOHN JACOB: Trevor Paglen is an American artist working in the landscape tradition. What makes him unusual is that he is both an artist and a geographer. He uses maps, he uses GPS, he uses technologies that help him locate his subjects, many of which are at a great distance physically from any capacity of being seen.

    I’m John Jacob. I’m the McEvoy Family Curator of Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and I am the curator of “Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen.” What he is trying to do in part with his work is to show us something that is otherwise difficult to see. By showing it to us, by letting us see it, we are better able to know it and thereby to speak about it. When visitors come to the exhibition, the primary thing that they are going to see is photographs. We will present Trevor’s early photographic series in which he documented the landscape of secrecy on land, under sea, in the sky and in the heavens. We will also be presenting those in relation to other materials that he creates. He produces three bodies of work. One is the photographic series; another is what you might call research artifacts that he obtains through the public domain and through freedom of information act requests. These are essentially declassified images and documents that he incorporates into his artwork. The third body of work is Trevor’s objects, which he calls impossible objects. They are intended to make us think beyond what the photographs and the research objects have shown by helping us to imagine a present or a future where the technologies he is showing us are not dictated by the demands of the landscape of secrecy and by surveillance. It’s important in looking at Trevor’s work that he is standing in the landscape in a lawful position. Once we see the situation of our current historical moment, and begin to know it and understand it better, perhaps we can act on it as well.

    Trevor Paglen blurs the lines between art, science, and investigative journalism to construct unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways to see and interpret the world around us. Inspired by the landscape tradition, he captures the same horizon seen by American photographers Timothy O’Sullivan in the nineteenth century and Ansel Adams in the twentieth.

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