Trevor Paglen's An English Landscape considers surveillance and the contemporary countryside
“I have written about surveillance, and am critical of it, but I don’t think images can make arguments,” says Trevor Paglen. “They can only draw attention to things and help people learn how to see. They can only hold things up for consideration – but holding things up for consideration is very powerful.”
Paglen was speaking at the opening of his installation at Gloucester Road Underground station – a 62m photograph of an idyllic English landscape which extends along the whole of one of the platforms. Slotted in between 19 brick arches decorating the wall, the image creates the trompe d’oeil effect of looking out into the countryside – a vista that includes the white domes of an American Surveillance Base. It was commissioned by Art on the Underground and will be on show for one year; it has also been included in 75,000 leaflets that will be distributed in all zone 1 Underground stations in London.
“Other people have tended to work with each space between the columns; I thought the columns create a very nice Arcadian view and wondered what would happen if I thought of them as opening onto an exterior,” says Paglen. “That led to thinking about the English landscape and how it was depicted by artists such as Constable, Turner and Gainsborough; it all came together with the idea of showing how the traditional English landscape looks today.”
Shot near Harrogate, Yorkshire, Paglen’s image includes rolling hills and traditional houses, but also the white geodesic domes of a military base. Officially called RAF Menwith Hill, this base is actually a key component of the American National Security Agency, and it is known to be used for communications and intelligence-gathering (although its exact role is a tightly guarded secret).
The base is a familiar sight for locals but is also strictly guarded, so Paglen shot his image in 20 sections from four miles away, using a telephoto lens, a medium format, and the help of UK-based photographer and artist Thierry Bal. London’s Tapestry production agency stitched the images together and printed the huge panels, creating a finished result that is so big, and so detailed, it is a piece of surveillance in itself. It is also subtle enough to withstand repeated views, however, perhaps from commuters riding past it everyday.
“I enjoy public art – I like the fact that so many people see it. It blends into the visual conception of everyday life, and I also like the challenge of thinking how the piece of work fits in with a particular space,” says Paglen. “In this case I was thinking about the English landscape but also about surveillance in the UK, and what a huge thing it is. Even as you drive around the countryside [here], you see cameras recording licence plates.”
“Trevor makes beautiful public art, and his work asks very pertinent questions,” says Rebecca Heald, curator of the project. “We gave him a very open brief; he came back to us with a few ideas and we worked through them together. We thought this one was the most visual – it doesn’t necessarily say one thing or the other, but it does raise interesting issues.”
An English Landscape – American Surveillance Base near Harrogate, Yorkshire by Trevor Paglen is on show at Gloucester Road Underground station until June 2015.
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