The Possessions of Paul Pfeiffer

Paul Pfeiffer, "Caryatid (Mayweather)," 2023. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; Perrotin; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

When Paul Pfeiffer was ten years old, he dreamt that he was possessed by the devil. He had just moved from the tropical suburbs of Hawaii to a rural town in the Philippines, where his parents were to be music teachers. “One day I went to sleep in a normal way,” Pfeiffer recounts to Thomas Ruff in a 2004 interview. “Some time in the night I woke up and felt that I was awake, but everything in my bedroom looked different. In fact, I could not feel my body and my sense of space had changed. I felt like I had become very small and the space had become very big.” He thought he might be sleepwalking, or dreaming. But raised in a deeply Christian family, he feared worse: that the devil had possessed him, that “the boundary between the outside world and the inside of my body had been transgressed.” He jumped out of bed and walked barefoot out of the door, away from the house, and toward the horizon, hoping that the sunlight would dispel his demons. He didn’t come back until the morning had arrived. He didn’t tell anyone. For a long time, he could not sleep.

Reflecting on the experience as an adult, he understood it as a memory foundational to his art-making: “Essentially my first experience of a kind of perceptual discovery—that things are not what you see and things that you take for granted, like your bedroom, may not be as stable as you think they are.” He wanted to use video and photography “to develop some kind of language” to convey this instability.

In Los Angeles, where we hope the sunlight will also dispel our demons, Pfeiffer’s monumental retrospective, Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom, explored how images possess us, and we possess images. It was pristinely installed across nineteen thousand square feet of the warehouse of the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, showcasing key early works and large-scale installations from Pfeiffer’s 25-year career of deconstructing an undercurrent of religion and spirituality within media. It’s a long-overdue survey for this deeply underappreciated artist, who effortlessly picks up on and develops the techniques of the Pictures Generation, the pop avant-garde gestures of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and even the cuts of Lucio Fontana or the erasures of Willem de Kooning—but with his own humorous, incisive wit. In Pfeiffer’s Prologue to the Story, media enacts its own kind of otherworldly possession, but understanding who is being possessed, and what is doing the possessing, is not so simple. Whether in his work with artist collectives or his deployment of the crowd as a visual motif, Pfeiffer dissects the smooth surfaces of spectacular images.

The relationship between the spectacle and the collective has preoccupied Pfeiffer in his art as well as his life as an artist. He is known as a key member of the Asian American art network Godzilla and a founder of the BIPOC collective and residency program Denniston Hill. Yet the relationship between the collective and the spectacular image is complicated: At times, Pfeiffer employs it to deconstruct or reveal something hidden with media; elsewhere, he uses the collective to replicate or further abstract something ineffable within the image. Sometimes he frees us, sometimes he doesn’t. In other words, lost in Pfeiffer’s crowds, I was never more skeptical of and more in love with images.

Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (30), 2015. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; Perrotin; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

In Pfeiffer’s earliest works on view, from the late 1990s, he cuts, loops, and splices film and TV clips to make it seem that his subjects are trapped in the confines of their own images. For instance, in The Pure Products Go Crazy (1998), Pfeiffer’s first video work, which he made shortly after attending the Whitney Independent Study Program, footage of Tom Cruise has been spliced into a two-second loop. Wearing the iconic dress shirt and boxers from Risky Business, Cruise thrashes on a couch. At MOCA, a delicate metal armature holding a projector extended from one wall, projecting the image, no larger than a few inches, onto the same wall. This was one third of the exhibition’s opening triptych, alongside John 3:16 (2000), in which a camera gyroscopically fixates on a basketball during a game, and Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon) (1999), in which Knicks forward Larry Johnson, mouth open, bellows soundlessly, as if screaming and resisting his capture. Here, celebrities and TV figures are trapped by their spectacularity, or the spectacle of an image that distracts us from the reality of the larger context. Pfeiffer’s simple cuts and small-scale presentations give the impression that we are looking down at genies trapped in glass bottles.

Paul Pfeiffer, Justin Bieber Head, 2018. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London Photo: Ben Westoby.

Encountering these clips for the first time in 2024, I couldn’t help but think of TikTok, which has appropriated the gestures of the cut, splice, and loop to harvest our attention. Even worse, at the end of the show, I gave in to my desire to record clips of the works and make a highlights reel for Instagram. Through the eyes of today’s viewer, Pfeiffer’s early videos are essentially GIFs, Reels, or looped Instagram Stories. This familiarity contributes to the way that his work, while deeply situated in the media environment of the ’90s, remains prescient—and still estranging—today. In two of his most striking early series, Caryatids (2003) and the trilogy The Long Count (2000–2001), he erases figures in the middle of boxing matches. We watch ghostly shimmers wobble on screen; boxers try to fight back against invisible opponents, buffeted by phantom punches; a trophy seemingly buoyed on thin air by the spectacle of a crowd’s attention. In his photographs Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (2000–ongoing), basketball players are suspended midair, floated by lights but also seemingly buffeted by the winds of stardom, limbs aloft in the force of celebrity. This is what spectacular images do to their subjects, Pfeiffer seems to say. And if we can better understand the conditions of our entanglement, perhaps we can learn to fight back.

For Pfeiffer, studying celebrities is instructive: they demonstrate the extreme case for what an image can do to a human being. There is Justin Bieber chopped up in Incarnator (2018–ongoing), like a sacrificial lamb in a religious sculpture; Marilyn Monroe erased from the iconic shoreline pictures of her in 24 Landscapes (2000–2008). There is Michael Jackson ventriloquized by a group of Filipino college students in his televised deposition, or Michael Jackson flayed and enflamed in the series Live Evil (2002). In those videos, Jackson shimmers like an effervescent trapped moth, doubling and folding into himself from the pressures of spectacularization. In each, the celebrities strike a devil’s bargain; they become stand-ins for some kind of divinity, but in exchange subject themselves to the desires of the crowd, who may do whatever they want with their image. What happens when a person is a monument, but also a black hole?

Paul Pfeiffer, Vitruvian Figure (detail), 2008. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; Perrotin; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Pfeiffer is interested in using collective labor to dissect spectacular images, often employing his Asian diasporic background in novel ways. In the stunning installation Vitruvian Figure (2008), he explores the spirituality of the crowd through an enormous model of the 2000 Sydney Olympics stadium, scaled to seat one million people. Each individual seat is no larger than a bug, and, standing above the rings of circles, you are made to feel like a god, or a drone. (As a complement, the nearby video Empire [2004] shows wasps making a nest over the course of ninety days; in their tedium, and also their stewardship of this monument, these workers seem not so different from humans.) Vitruvian Figure was produced by an atelier of artisans in the Philippines, similar to how the sculpture of Justin Bieber in Incarnator was made by a centuries-old atelier of Catholic icon makers. To me, there is something distinctly Asian American about leveraging labor in Asia toward the development of art production. It’s as if Pfeiffer’s family were helping him with his school projects; they might not understand what kind of intellectual circuits this object is going to manifest within, but they are willing to assist. In other settings, like in fashion, this has been called an “architecture of intimacy,” through which artists attempt to bring themselves asymptotically closer to a kind of homeland that they romanticize through labor. Even as Pfeiffer is unable to escape replicating the supply-chain structures that have been shored up through American militarization in Asian countries, he does succeed in turning his background into a site of negotiation instead of an aesthetic. By turning identity into a collective method (and not allowing it to be reduced to an image), Pfeiffer tries to free himself, and perhaps others, from the way identity-related imagery tends to possess its subjects.

But nowhere is the conflicted power of the collective—and the way collectivity can both give power to people and also be instrumentalized by the state—made more visceral than in Pfeiffer’s masterpiece The Saints (2007): a twelve-channel monumental sound installation of a roaring crowd. Presented in a spare white room at MOCA, the sound was enormous and immediately bodily, even hair-raising. To make the sound, Pfeiffer hired one thousand actors in the Philippines and screened a 1966 historic football match between England and Germany on an IMAX screen, offering Red Bulls and leading exercises to get the crowd going. He interpolated the audio from the original crowd with this new one and presented two videos—the making of the scene in the Philippines and the archival footage of the actual game—in a screening room behind the installation. Standing amid this sound, I felt like I was floating. I was submerged by the abstracted essence of the crowd, distilled and bottled in its most potent form. The lack of an actual image only revealed how powerful its possession was. The effect was cosmic, and pretty scary. Those forces of nationalism—integral to support for a country’s team—often prey on those deepest impulses within us: to belong, to identify, and to feel one with other humans around us.

Paul Pfeiffer, Red Green Blue, 2022. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York Photo: Steven Probert.

In the video showing the creation of the sound for The Saints in the Philippines, the actors clap and watch with fascination. Bright lights occasionally obscure the faces of these spectators, who sit in an enormous theater. We see individual faces very closely. Some people give away water bottles. A marching band plays nearby. After they play, they join the crowd. When there is a goal, the crowd stands up in unison. I imagine these actors were a bit incredulous about what was happening, thinking it was a little funny. Pfeiffer, in an interview with James Lingwood in a 2009 catalogue, understands this kind of collaboration as possible only in the Global South, where states like that of the Philippines encourage short-term employment, as an experience that might open up a third space between collectivity and nationalism: “One reason I was interested in going there was because of the real possibility of engaging an army-sized labor force on a limited budget, because as far out as it seems, that possibility does exist. … That, to me, describes a new social geometry, distinct from older ideas about the relationship between the state and its citizens.” Searching for these different geometries, or “third spaces,” has been a through line for Pfeiffer, from his work with Godzilla and Denniston to his video work.

In the time since Pfeiffer first started making these videos, our attention’s surrender into media has become more and more total. My brain is already cheese-holed with images. What is left of me that hasn’t already been possessed by the image? Pfeiffer’s engagement with the Philippines suggests the underbelly of labor behind the smoothest surfaces of a digital critique from someone like Hito Steyerl. Pfeiffer wants to estrange us from images to free us, but he also loves images; he can’t help it, and will do anything to unveil their workings. I was not freed of the image after viewing Pfeiffer’s show, even if I left with a better understanding of them. His interest in, and love for, the inner workings of images became its own form of possession. At the end of my visit, I returned to The Saints, where the overwhelming sound made me feel like I was floating like one of Pfeiffer’s Horsemen, and the boundaries between the outside world and my body transgressed.

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