Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and raised in the Philippines, New York-based artist Paul Pfeiffer is known for his interest in the spectacle of mass-media imagery, which he manipulates to create hypnotic videos and digital prints. Pfeiffer has had major solo exhibitions at K21 in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2004 and at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain, in 2008. Pfeiffer was commissioned in 2007 by the London-based nonprofit Artangel to memorialize the famous football arena Wembley Stadium with the installation “The Saints.” The piece shows a lone player from archival footage of the 1966 World Cup Final between West Germany and England, overlaid with a chorus of chanting that Pfeiffer recorded in the Philippines. His ongoing series “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (2000– ) includes portraits of basketball players leaping into the air without the ball, the basket or any surrounding players—all of which Pfeiffer digitally erased. At the risk of reproducing mass-media’s effects rather than critiquing them, Pfeiffer’s use of sports imagery appears to exploit the heroic and seductive qualities of professional athletics’ visual rhetoric. But the artist’s reckoning with powerful images that often blind viewers to critical insight is more radical than it at first appears. Pfeiffer was recently in Bangkok and spoke with ArtAsiaPacific contributor Brian Curtin about his disconcerting digital interventions.
The so-called Pictures Generation—Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and others—who returned to representational imagery in the late 1970s, often via appropriation, after a decade of minimal and conceptual art, are a precedent for your practice in terms of their appropriation of mass-media images. How do you understand their influence, particularly as a critique of media?
I feel a connection to the work of the Pictures artists. We have a shared interest in common, everyday images and how they shape reality. But I understand this shared interest as something more than media critique. There’s an uncanny emptiness lurking beneath the surface of every glossy image. For me, the legacy of the Pictures Generation is a desire to disrupt the surface illusion of reality and to access another dimension. In the work of Richard Prince I read a desire to break through the insulating and dulling effects of images, as though he’s trying to expose a traumatic reality hidden underneath. Here I’m specifically thinking of the re-photographed Marlboro ads and the sunset photos, in which you can’t tell if the people frolicking in the water are laughing and having fun or screaming because they’re getting fried by the sun.
There’s a deep fascination with images in your work, and I am interested in the implications of the pleasure of the image. Would you discuss this disruption or breaking through in relation to your engagement with the material aspect of images?
I have a background as a printmaker. It would be interesting to look at the history of printmaking as a kind of analog precursor to the digital imaging tools and processes we take for granted today. But media images don’t have a material aspect separate from their semiotic dimension; their form and meaning go hand in hand. In fact, I like the idea of accessing the one through the other, a kind of synesthesia. Richard Prince had a stylistic preference for the minimal, visually terse, even anti-aesthetic gesture. But this was the late 1970s and early 1980s, a far cry from the pluralistic aesthetic landscape we work in today. Compared to the artists of the Pictures Generation, artists like me might appear more comfortable playing with the material aspects of media images, even fascinated with them, for example, taking a painterly approach to editing and compositing video footage. But then again, compared with the minimalists and conceptual artists of the time, the original appropriation artists probably appeared indulgent in regards to the pleasures of the image.
Broadly speaking, you are consistently concerned with issues of race and visual representation, from your early use of sports imagery to Live From Neverland (2006), where you used footage of pop singer Michael Jackson’s public denial of child abuse charges.
As far as art-making goes, race, like religion, or like Jackson himself, is a way into people’s psyches. Race itself is not so interesting. Sure it’s part of the picture, but it’s just one dimension. Ideally, I want my work to oscillate between different readings.
Live From Neverland achieves this ideal as the imagery is deeply seductive and employs a plethora of references. How did you come to make this work?
Live From Neverland is part of my ongoing series of works with found footage, a recreation of a public statement Michael Jackson read on television around the world in 1993. I chose the footage less for the content of the speech and more for the global recognition factor. This televisual image of Jackson is also just a visually arresting image with a dream-like quality to it, thanks to the saturated colors and the shocking whiteness of his face. There’s an artificial quality to Jackson’s delivery as well. He looks earnestly into the camera as it zooms to a close-up. The scene seems staged and affected. This footage is paired with a second video image showing a chorus of 80 men and women performing Jackson’s monologue in unison. In fact, it’s a group of college students at Silliman University, the historic seat of American education in the Philippines, whom I hired. I slowed down the Jackson footage, synching the movement of his mouth to match the measured pace of the chorus. In the resulting slow motion image, Jackson appears to be struggling to speak, as though he’s stuck in some viscous medium and can barely move.
And what about the narrative of child abuse charges?
I’m interested in the relationship between the individual and the crowd in the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest. Jackson starts out as an exquisite object of mass devotion. His fans scream and faint when he appears on stage. Everyone wants a piece of him. But despite his stardom, you get a sense that his free will diminishes as his audience grows increasingly obsessed with gaining access to his private life. In the end he seems trapped, powerless to express the truth about himself, a projection screen for the desires and fears of the mob. His predicament relates to everyone living in our media-saturated culture. That’s my real interest in playing with the footage and trying to make something out of it.
Can you extrapolate this insight as a central concern of your work? You mean, mass media imagery is “merely” an object of projection, and therefore not a vehicle for truth, as such? Would you like to make some general comments on this idea?
Everyone knows that media images often lie. But that doesn’t diminish their power to grab our attention and exert an influence on our lives. In the end, the deep connection between images and people is a mystery to me. I think of Live From Neverland as an attempt to represent an enigma rather than to provide answers or defend a critical position on media culture.