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Jan Tumlir: "The Art of Paul Pfeiffer"

Paul Pfeiffer, John 3:16, 2000, digital video (color, silent, 2 minutes 7 seconds), LCD monitor, metal armature, 5 1⁄2 × 6 3⁄8 × 36".

THE FIRST WORK ONE SEES upon descending the stairs toward the entrance gallery of Paul Pfeiffer’s retrospective in the Geffen building of MoCA LA is the 2000 video John 3:16. It plays on a mini-monitor that juts out from the wall on a metal rod, as if in greeting. The title refers to the proselytizing tactic of holding up signs with the biblical cue at sporting events, often when a point is scored and the camera scans the audience’s reaction, a practice popularized in the late 1970s by a born-again Christian named Rollen Stewart who danced wildly at games attired in a rainbow fright wig while flashing a John 3:16 placard. Thus we are straightaway primed to plumb this work, derived from televised footage of an NBA game, for signs of the sacred. A basketball spins center screen as the long-fingered hands of one player after another come at it from all sides, briefly making contact in a succession of fleeting caresses. Although we know it is the hands that move the ball, the work produces the opposite impression: The ball moves the hands. Via techniques of framing and editing—here deployed openly, emphatically and even, one might say, anti-illusionistically—this otherwise inanimate thing is endowed with an agency that remains mysterious even as the artifice of the work is laid bare. It is as though the ball were enlisting the human organism to its cause. From the fingertip touchpoint outward, we begin to imagine whole bodies subsumed as appendages of a rotating sphere. 

Such reversals between actants and the acted-upon, or, more broadly, between subjects and objects, occur throughout Pfeiffer’s work. Pictorially, this might be discussed in terms of figure and ground, the normal relations between which are consistently undermined, as the latter is granted a leading role. For instance, in the suite of photographs comprised in 24 Landscapes, 2000/2008, we return to the beach that served as the setting for Marilyn Monroe’s final publicity shoot. Here, then, we are treading a familiar artistic terrain that stretches from Richard Hamilton’s My Marilyn, 1965, which reproduces the original contact sheet from that portraiture session, to Andy Warhol’s numerous screen-print “exhumations” of the deceased actress’s visage. In Pfeiffer’s work, however, Monroe has been wholly scrubbed from the scene—and yet she is there, perhaps all the more insistently present through her meticulous erasure. Even though this effect would have required a great deal of labor-intensive effort on his part at the time, the operation itself is straightforward and, again, frankly proclaimed as such. Unwanted details are eliminated from pictures all the time; arguably, this is the first priority of all modes of postproduction, from the photographic “touch-ups” of yore to today’s AI-assisted operations. Nevertheless, Pfeiffer here again leaves us grasping at a mysterious, even miraculous proposition. On the eve of her untimely departure, the superstar, like a supernova, has seemingly exploded and decomposed into the media atmosphere from which she emerged. Her figure, so readily imagined, stirs there, and not only at the point where she once stood, but at every point, in every grain of the picture. It is a devotional deletion: The scene of her disappearance is sprinkled with stardust.

Not only athletes and actors, but the whole pantheon of celebrities featured within the society of the spectacle is grist for Pfeiffer’s mill. His works do not really concern this or that person of note; rather, famed figures appear within them as artifacts of mediation, and thus as immanently manipulable “assets.” They have been cut and copied, sliced apart into pieces and spliced together with other pieces. Moreover, as we are reminded time and again, these figures are composite entities from the first moment, bioengineered, one might say, with an eye to the beholder. From infancy, these beings were built for our entertainment; they have been audience-tested; they reflect what we most want to see, what fits the frame and stays put in the memory. This construction process is circular: What we are shown is what we make. Underwriting every one of Pfeiffer’s works is a collective project, global in scope, and trailing ancient roots. As we wind our way through the artist’s retrospective, organized by Clara Kim and Paula Kroll, we confront a sharedmemory palace, a show-space devoted to human memory right along with all its prosthetic supports, mechanical, electric, and electronic.

Pfeiffer rose to prominence as an artist in the 1990s, on the heels of the so-called Pictures generation and what was once known as appropriation art. Mining popular culture for material, his early work was readily associated with that of such figures as Robert Longo, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. “Images That Understand Us,” the title of a conversation between David Salle and James Welling published in the pages of the LAICA Journal in 1980, sums up the approach to the order of ready-made, mass-disseminated images that began to take shape in those years. It would hinge on a kind of inverted logic, for, as Welling put it, these are “images [that] compose our preconceptions and expectations of the possible, and in that sense we are their product.”Pfeiffer followed suit, from the outset demonstrating a pronounced psychological investment in those recycling procedures that Pop art, at its inception, undertook in a rhetorically machinic manner. Moreover, by the ’80s, and even more so the ’90s, images that once carried the distancing imprimatur of the top-down “media monopolies” at their origin were drawing closer as items readily at hand. Certainly, this had to do with a larger structural shift in the order of our information technologies, which increasingly were marketed toward the “prosumer.” Pfeiffer often mentions that his entry into the realm of digital imaging occurred more or less simultaneously with everyone else’s. “I started working in video only when it was accessible through desktop editing software,” he explains in an interview with Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol in the MoCA show’s exhibition catalogue.2 The various video-editing techniques employed by the artist were, and to a great extent remain, those on the menu: “to simply scroll back and forth or to create a loop. . . .” 3 But unlike his forebears, Pfeiffer began to analyze these operations from a perspective informed as much by media studies—that inevitable theoretical addendum to the art of the ’80s—as by anthropology and religious mythography. As he goes on to note, “I think now about that loop structure as one that has to do with repetition, and there’s an association of repetition with prayer and meditation—the use of both visual and auditory repetition to create states of altered consciousness.” From the first moment, it would seem, Pfeiffer was prepared to take a step backward.    

The figures that appear and disappear within the temporally unhinged environment of Pfeiffer’s memory palace are instantiations of the second nature of our technological life. Michael Jackson is granted pride of place within this artist’s oeuvre as an exemplar. His is a body that has been projected into the media sphere and then returned to sender transformed, having internalized every effect of its imagistic extension. In the “Live Evil” series of works, 2002–18, four of which are included in the show, we observe the pop icon performing his famous “moonwalk” at concert performances in various world cities (Kuala Lumpur; Gothenburg, Sweden; Bucharest; and Copenhagen, respectively). He moves on the stage as though in a filmstrip, in herky-jerky stops and starts, proceeding forward then backward, seemingly released from temporal causality and the weight of gravity. We now take such dance moves in stride, yet Pfeiffer seizes upon their fundamentally alien quality and amplifies it. The performer is rendered headless, his trunk subdivided, one half doubled, reversed, and connected to its right-facing side. The legs, which have remained untouched, advance this way and that, supporting the mutating Rorschach blot–like configuration of this body sutured to its reflection. One might be reminded of those fearsome archaic idols who conjoin in their form symmetrical order and asymmetrical chaos. A supreme being, then, but radically compressed; relayed by the tiniest LCD screens, he is shrunk to the scale of a pocket talisman or else an innocuous plaything for toddlers.

In another, later piece, Live from Neverland, 2006, we encounter Jackson as a talking head on an old-school cube monitor that sits humbly on the floor. Silently, and repeatedly, he mounts his defense against child abuse accusations on a segment of self-paid airtime originally broadcast in 1993 via satellite from his California home. Meanwhile, projected onto an adjacent screen is a chorus of white-robed college students, who sound out his words in unison. When the speech is over, they leave in two rows, the congregation parting like streams of water to the right and left. And then again it reconstitutes, and the streams flow back together. This companion piece to the Neverland Ranch transmission elicits a range of conflicting emotions. What might at first be greeted as a cruel joke goes on to assume a sublime dimension. One might recall that, during Jackson’s trial, one child after another marched up to the podium to either support or denounce him. Yet Pfeiffer does not ask his audience to take sides; this work is not really about Jackson or the issues at stake in his disgrace. Rather, here and elsewhere, Pfeiffer frames a galvanizing historical event as an experience always ongoing. The rise and fall of the idol, the formation and disintegration of a cult, the rituals that persist—these are the narrative movements of an age-old script that is set on repeat. 

Here, too, one might be led to consider the theory of traumatic repetition as formulated within psychoanalytic literature. Pfeiffer’s memory palace is full of wounds, scabs, and scars. After all, one could not remember anything that has not first been forgotten, perhaps repressed. This play of absence and presence is integral to the workings of the human psyche, and also what distinguishes it from those of our recording devices, the mind’s automated extensions, which cannot really be said to remember what they store and make instantly available in full. In effect, this artist’s main formal strategy would seem to be one of exacerbation: The distinction between these two modes of memorization is rendered glaring. In the time that it takes for the choir of children to assemble and disassemble in Live from Neverland, the Jackson video reverts to a test pattern. This bit of “dead air” is the void about which he must now continually turn as a figure without a past or a future. The cut is amplified, made to reverberate, painfully, through the splice.

LOOPING, PFEIFFER HAS RECENTLY CLAIMED, is “fundamental to the structure of the digital.” 5 Within electronic media, audio and visual alike, data turns in circles. Loops are ubiquitous and, as such, tend to pass unnoticed in our everyday experience. Yet Pfeiffer insistently calls them out for attention. The two-channel piece that lends the MoCA show its title, Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom, 2000, is emblematic in this regard. It is structured around a speech delivered by Cecil B. DeMille introducing his 1956 biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. On one monitor, the producer makes his way to the proscenium through a parted curtain and then immediately disappears, over and over. On the other, he repeatedly approaches the microphone stand installed for him there, cutting out and restarting before he is able to utter a word. This figure is rendered at once comedically and agonizingly ineffectual: Falling in and out of the loop, he appears as though perpetually descending into a pictorial abyss. 

A narrative of salvation, set down in the Bible and then transposed to the silver screen, is projected into the present via Pfeiffer’s computerized tinkering—although hardly in one piece. Considered in relation to his retrospective as a whole, this “prologue” leaves us wondering at what becomes of our freedom within the world of images. Certainly, as an idea, freedom has a history, and here we can track it through the technical progression of its means of expression: from still to moving images, from photography to cinema to television to the digital realm where all these media converge. But does the idea of freedom advance at the same rate as, say, our frame rates? Or does it fall behind and below these, a mere effect rather than a cause? Caught within this loop of our own making, it would seem that we are not at all free but rather condemned to repetition. 

Taken together, the emotional upshot of Pfeiffer’s works is disquieting. A sinister tone resonates throughout this exhibition, and this might have to do with the fact that Pfeiffer never declares his motives outright in the way that we have come to expect of artists today. And yet there is the sense that this work is “about” something of major consequence. It operates like a jabbing index finger: Look, look, look at this! What is it? Consistently, we are pointed at the axis around which everything spins, the revolving door of an edit that connects the last image back to the first and, in the same stroke, seals the whole sequence off from the world. Even those works that involve continuous real-time recording and replay, such as Perspective Study (after Jeremy Bentham), 1998/2023, and Cross Hall, 2008, are haunted by repetition. In both, a live camera is trained on a static miniature replica—in the former, of a tent in the forest; in the latter, a lectern in the White House—and thus relays a resolutely unchanging image to the screen. The closed-circuit system only discloses its essential circularity in this ceaseless transmission of the same.   

 As Stephen King, for one, has emphasized, this condition is the opposite of freedom: It is hell. 6 On the other side of the argument is someone like Kierkegaard, who, in his treatise Repetition, aligned it instead with the pursuit of happiness. 7 Not coincidentally, this book was published in 1843, shortly following the public unveiling of the photograph in 1839. Certainly, the forward march of our media is also driven by a desire to revisit what once made us happy, to recapture that moment with ever-increasing fidelity. Repetition might here be considered as the most fundamentally willful act of humanity, and in this regard the immense effort that Pfeiffer expends in making it happen assumes a kind of allegorical import. The 2007 work The Saints is an acute example. It concerns the 1966 soccer World Cup final match between West Germany and England, held at Wembley Stadium. Not so long before, these same nations had confronted each other on the battlefields of World War II, so there was an element of reenactment in this epochal event from the first moment. Yet Pfeiffer pushes this cyclical history closer to our present by having the spectators’ reactions to the game precisely mimicked, forty-one years after the fact, by a one-thousand-person audience in a movie theater in the Philippines, where the artist spent much of his childhood. On their home turf, the English defeated their rivals, and their experience of mounting jubilation, transposed not only in time but also in space—the Manila venue effectively on the other end of the earth from Wembley—is thus shared “for real” with a people who have endured a considerably more punishing history. And now, in descending steps of vicarious engagement, we too become the beneficiaries of this collective moment of rapture. 

At MoCA, the crowd roars through a seventeen-channel speaker system that has been installed around a mostly empty gallery. In the back, separated by a freestanding wall, are two side-by-side video projections that clue us in to the source of the sound. One replays the original footage of the game; the other attends to the gathering in Manila. Yet The Saints is primarily an audio piece—and, in its overwhelming volume, one that serves as a soundtrack to the entire show. The moment we enter the museum, before any work is seen, we are submerged in this mass vocalization that speaks so directly to that part of the spectacle that concerns participation. Almost instinctively, we gravitate toward it. When at last we learn that it issues entirely from an audience of actors—every one of whom is credited on the wall label outside the work—it comes as a profound revelation: The audience is performing its role as an audience, turning reception into production. Here again, however, we never get to the bottom of anything: The work leaves us grasping for “the message.”

There is none, or rather not one, because there are too many. A whole host of troubling topics are called to mind: war, fascism, and colonial domination—yes, at one point, between 1762 and 1764, even the British occupied Manila. But so too are we led to think of the subversive, carnivalesque pleasures involved in restaging history. The excitement of “putting on a show,” as a volatile event of self-assertion and self-cancellation at once, is vividly communicated. It infuses the entire exhibition with the up note of methexis, which is an ancient word for “feedback.”8 Reversal of figure and ground, Pfeiffer’s signature tactic, never lands us squarely in the grain pattern, raster, or matrix of the image—that is to say, the medium is not the only message on offer. Resounding throughout the halls of the Geffen, the sonic onslaught of the ecstatic crowd comes as a reminder that the ground of the image is also composed of figures. To keep one’s “eye on the ball,” the underlying injunction of John 3:16, is impossible: It is a vortex that spirals both inward and outward, moving the hands of the players, which equally are moved by an audience. 

Pfeiffer’s most iconic works are perhaps those in which a boxer is erased from a boxing match (as in the triptych of videos that includes The Long Count [Rumble in the Jungle], 2001), leaving his opponent alone in the ring, flailing against a ghost. This at-the-time grueling operation, which today could be executed with a mouse click, remains compelling precisely because of its “failure,” in the artist’s own words. One frame at a time, the boxer was painstakingly excised and filled in with the background, with the aim of achieving a seamless effect. Yet when the video was played back at full speed, trace elements of the process could plainly be seen; ultimately, after numerous attempts at correction, these were deemed fortuitous. The missing figure remains as rippling silhouette, a tear in the fabric of the image that vignettes the stadium audience and, by extension, also calls out to us as the audience on the other end of the image. Absorbed into this “rumble in the jungle,” we experience our own viewership as radically fraught, rapidly alternating between postures of offense and defense, pummeling while getting pummeled. “I’ve always been interested in the ways in which inherited ideas of critique involve the notion of a critical distance,” Pfeiffer says, “which I don’t know that we can really maintain, if we ever did maintain it.” If any kind of critique is involved in his work, it might be a critique of critique. His insistent exposure of the apparatus of spectacular production in no way leads to subjective recentering, but neither are we left to throw up our hands in capitulation. Rather, we are invited to continually reconsider our role in the event that enfolds us here and now. It is in the dark space of the cut, the seam, the tear, the hole that we can begin to imagine spectators and spectacles engaged in mutual constitution. There, we are encouraged to think of imaging, as it were, in reverse, from highly evolved technical operations to rudimentary forms of mimetic behavior. In Pfeiffer’s works those “images that understand us” are the outcome of a process that is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but more topsy-turvy, and highly volatile, giving rise to gods and monsters in equal measure.

“Paul Pfeiffer: Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through June 16.

— Jan Tumlir


1. David Salle and James Welling, “Images That Understand Us,” LAICA Journal, no. 27 (June–July 1980): 54.   

2. Paul Pfeiffer to Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, “Matrix, Mediatic, Iconic,” in Paul Pfeiffer: Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom (Los Angeles: MoCA, 2024), 173.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. This and following quotes are sourced from a conversation with the author, January 20, 2024.

6. This point is made by the demonic figure of André Linoge in the King-scripted television drama Storm of the Century (1999): “Because that’s what hell is all about . . . repetition. I think, in our hearts, most of us know that.”

7. Kierkegaard opens his book by questioning the very possibility of repetition, and then proposes an experiment: “You can, after all, take a trip to Berlin; you have been there once before, and now you can prove to yourself whether a repetition is possible and what importance it has.” Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling / Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 131. Accordingly, repetition is straightaway given a forward thrust and, on that basis, distinguished from backwardly oriented recollection, which the author aligns rather with unhappiness. One might wonder on what side of this equation Kierkegaard would have placed a postcard of Berlin.

8. The term methexis accounts for what passes between the performers and audience in a theatrical context, for instance. This is to stress the element of encounter, communion, and sharing that turns works into events. Even in our reception of technical images, which are generally aligned with the realm of mimesis, some quotient of methexis can be made out. It appears as a kind of resonance between what the image shows and what it “itself” is as something to be seen.