Gallery  May 24, 2024  Carlota Gamboa

A Look Into Paul Pfeiffer’s Digital Icons At MOCA

Courtesy of MOCA

Installation view of "Incarnador" series

Filipino-American artist Paul Pfeiffer has been asking audiences to question their relationship with cultural spectacles since the 1990s. In his first major U.S. retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the media-art pioneer showcases his versatility and depth through a mixture of video work, photography, installation pieces, and sculpture

With an exhibition title like Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom— derived from the opening phrase of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epic The Ten Commandments—  a relationship between film, reference, viewership, and capital is subtly established. 

The show features more than 30 works that span across Pfeiffer’s career and transmits introspective and allegorical commentaries on how pop-culture permeates our understanding of a body when it’s witnessed through a screen. 

Courtesy of MOCA

"Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse", 2015

Johanna Burton, Director of MOCA, emphasized the significance of the show's location in a press statement, “Paul’s work has a global reach and gives us a profound sense of the technological landscape we live in. Yet, Los Angeles offers an ideal setting for this long-awaited, ambitious exhibition. Set in the entertainment capital of the world, a city singularly poised to create–and manipulate–dreams, symbols, and mythologies, this show will have deep resonance here.” And indeed it does. 

Pfeiffer is an artist who is interested in the pain-staking aspects of film production. This curiosity can be seen through his artistic process, in addition to his chosen subjects. The images and video work of meticulously edited stills and fragments normally undergo some kind of erasure or manipulation. 

This kind of treatment to the medium isolates symbolic details and defamiliarizes the viewer from scenes we’ve grown accustomed to. The artist’s hand is evident in the sense that one can typically recognize what has been removed or altered, but it is done so with a precision that makes it appear natural. 

Courtesy of MOCA

Installation view of "Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse" series

This technique is what gives Pfeiffer’s pieces so much symbolic weight. Some of the most emblematic visual markers from the show emerge from a series of NBA freeze-frames, from 2000 to 2018, where contextual references of teams, ads, and other players have been wiped from the original image. What is left in the wake of excision are eerie figures, sometimes captured in religiously-leaning configurations surrounded by a packed stadium of spectators. 

The series, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” puts the idea of bodily consumption into the foreground, not only in a religious light, but in a political one. The discourse of black bodies being offered up for removed and stake-less audiences is haunting, evocative, and deliberate. The nuanced choices Pfeiffer makes effortlessly communicates a narrative about modern rituals and fanaticism.  

Another ongoing series started in 2018, “Incarnator,” also delves into the questions of cultural devotion. Commissioned by MOCA for another iteration of the sculptures, Pfeiffer works with “encarnadores” who specialize in the creation of santos. These wooden carvings typically depict Jesus, The Mother Mary, or saints pertaining to specific churches and regions. 

Courtesy of MOCA

Paul Pfeiffer, Vitruvian Figure (detail), 2008

The Catholic effigies that are most often found on altar pieces have been exported to the gallery’s white cube, but their re-contextualization is not the only transformation. The works, which physically connect to colonial projects and labor, are modeled in the appearance of Justin Bieber. Bieber’s body, depicted in a progression of three stages, has been dismembered. Three pairs of arms, torsos, and heads all stand apart from another, as a single assemblage of legs hang as sculptures with stigmata-type wounds. 

As the exhibition’s curator Clara Kim says, “Pfeiffer gets at the undercurrents of what holds contemporary society together— our collective desires, fears, and sense of belonging.” On view until June 16th, the New York-based artist’s survey show is a monument to cultural icons through an isolated lens. 

Be it through emotionally-probing installations, or a mixture of satire with commentary, Pfeiffer asks viewers to consider their relationship to the world of digital culture and how this has impacted or shaped the relationship an individual has with themselves.

About the Author

Carlota Gamboa

Carlota Gamboa is an art writer based in Los Angeles.

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