The Postmodern Prometheus
In July 1797 as Admiral Lord Nelson stepped onto a beach in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, under heavy fire, a musket ball passed through his right arm just above the elbow. The arm suffered a compound fracture and an artery was severed. After having his arm amputated Nelson experienced what we now term a ‘phantom limb’; the uncanny phenomenon where the amputee feels sensation in the missing appendage. Nelson believed the phantom arm that replaced his flesh and blood one was ‘direct evidence for the existence of the soul’; his logic being that if an arm could survive amputation, why should an entire person not live on after death?
In June 1962 Marilyn Monroe stepped onto a beach in Santa Monica, California for what would prove to be one of her last photo shoots before her tragic death just two months later. For his work 24 Landscapes Paul Pfeiffer appropriates the resulting images and erases Marilyn’s figure from each photo. Only a few of the images contain minor traces of having once been populated such as disturbed sand or a slight shadow, yet they all have a particular scale, framing and depth of field suggestive of an absent central figure. Unless you are already familiar with George Barrie’s original photographs there is nothing within the work to reveal the missing figure as Marilyn yet once this fact is known it is difficult not to conjure up her image from the back of your mind. It’s as if, like Nelson’s arm she spectrally lingers on after removal.
24 Landscapes operates on a forensic level; its audience is encouraged to reconstruct the processes and motivations of the artist rather than take up the position of mere viewer. The removal of a central figure elevates the surroundings and consequent traces to the position of the subject much like at a crime scene, yet because we are fully aware of how susceptible to digital manipulation imagery can be, Marilyn’s removal is no disappearing act. Pfeiffer’s use of commercial re-touching technologies to cut and paste the background material over Marilyn’s figure is not seduction through visual illusion but a deliberate cover-up. His ‘crime’ is to rob the images of the currency upon which they trade, the photographs lose their raison d’etre and become all material presence with no emotional core, in essence their ‘souls' have been removed.
Like a postmodern Victor Frankenstein, Pfeiffer uses digital processes, the vernacular of our time, to cut up and stitch together past material. In doing so, he creates works, which refuse to sit comfortably back into the world from which they are drawn [mimicking Frankenstein’s unnamed monster that was never accepted by its society]. The works therefore bring into question not only the function and role of the technologies employed in their production but more importantly our relationship to imagery and how we have come to define ourselves through it. Whilst the concept of an everlasting soul may have diminished in our secular age, the practice of making imagery as a protection against the anxiety of loss and a way to defend against biological death still holds strong. We have also come to rely on a form of aesthetic consumerism; the desire to have our reality confirmed and our experiences enhanced by the reproduced image. In a reversal of Nelson’s logic, we no longer see our own ‘phantoms’ as ‘direct evidence for the existence of a soul’ but as evidence of our own reality and existence; a confirmation of who we are and what defines us.
© 2009 Neil Hamon / Project Space 176