Paul Pfeiffer, Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), 1999, DVD and Sony CPJ200 projector.
Courtesy of the artist and The Project, NY
First published in
Issue 53, June-August 2000
by David Hunt
At six feet seven inches and 235 pounds, Larry Johnson of the New York Knicks is the prototype for the new model army of NBA players: fast, expensive and very much in control of his body’s innate gifts. Though not the ‘franchise’, LJ’s still clearly part of the ‘talent’—a highly evolved role player; not just your average utility man. After eight years in the league he’s practically a living logo, instantly recognizable even in the small markets—say, a Cleveland or a Sacramento. Johnson’s tough but sweet; he wants you to know he has a soft side. But you won’t see it out on the court. No, there he’s a wide-body force, a schoolyard gladiator that can actually shoot—an enforcer, really, but when he dunks? Well…, welcome to the show.
With Larry, you’ve got the total package: a fully-formed, photogenic man-child with sound fundamentals in a Soloflex chassis, who can practically taste the endorsements and the product tie-ins. Check it: Cotton Club side-part in his hair, tight fade in the back, and a gold tooth glinting in the baby spot. In the shoot-around at the Garden, Johnson’s all easy smiles and soft kisses off the glass. He’s got his warm ups on so you can’t see the coiled muscles in his legs and the thin sheen of sweat building up on his arms.
Here’s the sequence: lights dim, cue the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, strobes pan wildly over the crowd, and the players butt chests as they’re introduced at center court. Cut to anthem, then tip-off, and now both teams are mixing it up. LJ dunks with two hands—an overhead slam that rings out as the rim snaps back into place. He glides back to earth and stands there for a moment, exultant. Johnson’s happy. He’s so happy he can barely contain himself. So he doesn’t. He lets out a fierce cry, a territorial shriek; what you might call a private moment and a network photo-op.
In Paul Pfeiffer’s 30-second DVD loop, Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon) (1999), Larry Johnson becomes a magnet of triumphal male fantasy. His body, trapped in a loop, becomes a blank screen upon which we project feelings of omnipotence and ecstasy. Pfeiffer digitally edits out all traces of the game—the ball, the backboard, the other players—and centrally frames Johnson as he triangulates in three different positions.
A disembodied comic book hero, LJ’s ringed with a cosmic nimbus as flash bulbs explode all around him, illuminating him in a halo of light. The crowd seems hushed and removed, a pixelated coliseum of entranced viewers hanging on every twitch of Larry’s celebration dance. This is, after all, what they came to see: a peak athletic experience so transcendent you forget everything that led up to it. No longer two teams locked in combat, now it’s just a lone figure shorn of context, letting loose with a primal wail like a sacred obsidian statue roused to life.
As professional sports become one more genre of ‘reality’ competing for mindshare in the media sensorium, players are reduced to this year’s model—live action animatronic dolls erased of subjectivity and plugged into the loop like a string of code. Pfeiffer simply trades on our sublimated desire to humanize the machine, a universal wish fulfillment held in perpetual abeyance by other, more prescriptive technologies not seen. As in game theory, we cheer for Johnson the ‘set of actions’ rather than an individual character imbued with complex motivations. Ironically, Pfeiffer uses the same digital technology that dehumanizes and spectacularizes the game to reclaim Johnson’s individuality.
In this sense, Pfeiffer is a digital intimist, co-opting the three by four inch frame of the screen to render a miniature backlit world, a tiny pointillist screen grab that begs our scrutiny, proffering a tacit invitation to identify with Johnson’s tormented howl. While wide screen cinema and projected video installations loom over us, forcing us to cower before their towering imagery, Pfeiffer’s Fragment… shatters the linear narrative of two 45 minute halves, using the loop to remove Johnson from his natural orbit and recast him as mere flesh and blood. We don’t marvel at a distance in the manner of film, but are thrust up close with a curious eye. Pfeiffer’s sleight of hand is no return of the real, but a networked transubstantiation of divine flesh back into this mortal coil.
Like the Francis Bacon painting after which the piece is subtitled, Pfeiffer degrades the image so that we look at it anew with fresh eyes. Bacon’s ‘Crucifixions’ and his ‘Studies after Velázquez’ map Adorno’s notion that ‘after the Holocaust, there will be no more lyric poetry’ onto the stoic countenance of Christ and Pope Innocent X, thus updating a complacent (and obsolete) psychology for an anxious post-nuclear age. Likewise, Pfeiffer uses the loop like a makeshift zoom lens, isolating Johnson from the flow of the game, erasing his identity as branded media icon so that his humanity resonates contemporaneously with our own. In becoming a universal template of our desires and longings for cathartic release, Johnson sacrifices his own personal history, his circuitous path up the NBA ladder.
In John 3:16 (2000), a frozen image of a basketball practically laminated to the screen, Pfeiffer takes his aesthetic erasures and subtractions to another level—more formal, wholly minimal. The monitor becomes a tightly strung drum upon which the ball is inertly framed. It floats before the crowd, gets palmed by a player, appears to bounce off the rim, but at all times it is the ball which hovers in a steady state, while the action shifts dynamically in the background.
The liquid flux of the slipping arena foregrounds the ball’s own weird stasis. We focus on the sphere like a still life—it offers itself as a meditative object as seamlessly as a bust or bouquet, resting on the surface of the flat-panel screen as if it were a glowing plinth or phosphor vitrine. In a sense, reality, in all its techno-mediated versions, requires a leap of faith. The ball, three times removed from lived experience—the actual game, its televised version, Pfeiffer’s digital manipulation of the televised version—begs that leap so that its image can attain the rapt eternal power that it so cunningly promises. Pfeiffer, here, conflates our willing suspension of disbelief, with the jump from faith to belief, and in so doing elevates the flickering image of the ball to this eternal.
But in Pfeiffer’s DVD loop The Pure Products Go Crazy (1998), titled after the William Carlos Williams poem, we get closest to his notion of the hyper-real as eternal essence: taking the famous scene in Risky Business (1983) in which Tom Cruise dances in his underwear, he freezes the moment when Cruise humps the couch like a man possessed. Again, Pfeiffer’s digital voodoo traps Cruise in the terminal logic of the loop like an arcade game demo, vibrating maniacally until we focus helplessly on the purity of his white briefs.
Here, the loop is both microscope and telescope, enlarging the quotidian, even as it pulls the distant horizon in front of us. ‘It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off / No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car’ Williams’ poem concludes, and in these words we see Pfeiffer’s point: in attuning us to the ‘isolate flecks,’ be it a thundering victory cry, an elegantly frozen basketball, or an emblem of youthful male sexuality, Pfeiffer casts light on the cloistered regions of our own perception, gently forcing us to look again and again and again.
Chloe Piene, Little David, 1999, DVD. Running Time: 03:03:56
MARIANNE BOESKY GALLERY, NEW YORK, USA
First published in
Issue 53, June-August 2000
by David Hunt
When it comes to glorifying the subculture of prison life, Hollywood keeps its shady promises. From American Me (1992) to American History X (1998), the entire gamut of fraternal secret codes—handshakes, gang tattoos, Neitzchean kill-or-be-killed ethics—get replayed like so many Italian Mafia clichés without ever truly expressing the depressing monotony of a life sentence. It’s all glamorous jailbreaks and choreographed cafeteria rumbles as tinsel town cashes in on another genre of unchecked male violence.
Clint Eastwood escapes from Alcatraz, Jon Voigt hops on a runaway train, Cool Hand Luke gets martyred and the rest are released into a confusing and indifferent world. We get the climactic spectacle, but never the anguished interior thoughts of a prisoner pacing himself for the long haul. How could we? A 90-minute prison movie is like an amped-up metronome, ticking off shower scenes like a series of reps in the ubiquitous weight room. Time here is like testosterone: manic, impulsive and short-tempered.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Chloe Piene trades film’s breakneck speed for the epistolary form’s slowed down, more ruminative pace. Lovelady Texas (1999) is a collected book of letters from Piene’s seven-month correspondence with a convicted felon in a Texas federal penitentiary. While at Goldsmiths, the artist answered an advertisement in a magazine about becoming pen pals with a prisoner. As she had been making portraits of prisoners, she seized the opportunity to be closer to her subject, notwithstanding the 4,000 miles that separates the two. In over 200 pages of handwritten letters, we learn of the double murder that landed Piene’s anonymous scribe in jail, his conversion to the Aryan Brotherhood, his dubious racial politics, and his die-hard love of weightlifting and heavy metal music, releases for his admittedly aggressive impulses.
But these are just facts. Where Lovelady Texas succeeds is in capturing the sense of moment to moment longing—of real obsession bordering on real despair—of a relationship doomed from the start. There are no Montagues and Capulets or West Side Story ethnic feuds separating our star-crossed lovers en route to an unknowable, if eventually tragic conclusion. Life without parole doesn’t bend so easily to film’s dramatic stereotypes. Though Piene’s story is unscripted, its conclusion is writ large over every desirous sentence: thanks to the Texas penal code, the two will never be together. And because we know this with an early, dreadful certainty that mocks the prisoner’s continual hope for a speedy appeal and quick release, their story is a tragedy from the beginning, not just a Greek farce of littered bodies at the end.
Their correspondence becomes a Beckettian limbo of waiting to be together, but instead of existential impediments to human connection, we get real obstacles. Alone in his cell, Piene’s platonic lover punctuates his naked emotions with ‘You’re my sweetheart, my #1 Lady’ and ‘I wish you could X-ray my heart’. In a sense, Piene has already done so in a series of charcoal portraits of a skeletal mother and child. She grafts bits of fleshy tissue to porous bone as if to say that the capacity for good and evil courses through our sinews, rather than merely being genetically hardwired. It’s still biological, just a little more primordial.
Piene continues in this vein with a four minute looped DVD projection, Little David (1999). This darkened backyard scene depicts a young boy clad only in underwear stomping around menacingly, clenching his fists, and flexing his muscles. His voice is slowed down to an ominous bass as he intones ‘I’m a weightlifting barbarian fanatic’. No doubt he will be, but right now he’s a creepy caricature of every pro-wrestling drone who ever got sand kicked in his face. And this, in essence, is Piene’s point: we are born into a world of theatrically violent rituals that beget real violence, and—more tellingly—we memorize lines of false bravado before sincere affection. To judge from Lovelady Texas, it’s already too late.