Image, Identity & the Exorcist: Q&A with Paul Pfeiffer

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Pfeiffer's 1999 video Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Bacon) borrows its title from a 1950 painting by Francis Bacon.
Pfeiffer’s 1999 video Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon) borrows its title from a 1950 painting by the Irish-born British artist.

New York artist Paul Pfeiffer began a two-year position as Dodd Chair at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in spring 2016. Perhaps best known for his video and photography works that transform preexisting sports footage through editing and erasure, he also creates sculpture and installation works. Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon) exemplifies Pfeiffer’s practice: a clip of basketball player Larry Johnson is altered, looped, and presented as a tiny square from a projector attached to the wall. Pfeiffer edited out the number and logo on Johnson’s jersey, arena ads, and other graphic information, though camera flashes sparkle in the background. The result is a distilled, emotive portrait that evokes Bacon’s visceral and horrific 1950 painting of the same name.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

Horror, religion, and spectacle often factor prominently into Pfeiffer’s work, with films such as The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist serving as source material. Pfeiffer’s recent work, such as Three Figures In A Room, continues to develop techniques from earlier in his career. By eliminating other noises from the room and isolating sounds from two boxers, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, Pfeiffer draws attention to the fighters’ individual grunts and breaths.

Installation view of Pfeiffer's video Three Figures In A Room at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.
Installation view of Pfeiffer’s video Three Figures In A Room at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.

Pfeiffer and I met on a sunny day in April 2016 in the courtyard of the Georgia Museum of Art on the University of Georgia campus. We talked about his move to the South, demonic possession, our mutual admiration for UGA Professor Isabelle Wallace, and, of course, his work.

Rebecca Brantley: I want to start with a question about the South. I read a very insightful interview with you in BOMB where you speak about your childhood in Manila and Honolulu and this notion of colonial expansion—how the places you have lived have mirrored the colonial project of the West. Do you think that your move to the South has had related significance? Of course, the region still struggles with its history of racial oppression and slavery.

Paul Pfeiffer:  Absolutely. That’s a huge interest, and I want to be careful, because even in the short time that I’ve been here—two months—I realize how loaded, how sensitive, and how present in everybody’s minds that history is.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

RB: It’s extraordinarily present!

PP: Yeah! It’s amazing. Coming back from Berlin, it reminds me a little bit of Germany. I think Germany is a really interesting actor in the world right now, because in some ways the bigger problem of the contemporary world has to do with forgetting, or with the way that politically charged and politically contentious processes are neutralized by spectacle—by images. So in some ways, I’m interested in the history of the South, and I see that history as not just the burden of the South. It’s universal in the same way that the history of Germany is, in some ways, universal.

Prompted by the impromptu performance of a bagpipe player, Pfeiffer and I change location. I recounted my childhood fear of possession by a demon, which began after I read a Satanic prayer in a book about South Georgia folktales written by a distant cousin. This segued into a conversation about horror films.

Paul Pfeiffer Quod Moen Mihi Est? 1998 Wall-recessed diorama, 10 x 16 x 18 inches Collection of Lois Plehn Courtesy the artist and The Project, New York and Los Angeles
Pfeiffer’s Quod Moen Mihi Est? is a wall-recessed diorama that replicates the setting of the film The Exorcist in miniature.

RB: I’ve never seen the entire Exorcist. As a child I wasn’t allowed to see it. I’m certainly allowed to now. I just have never gotten around to watching the whole film.

PP: I really started watching it to get over my fear, because coming into adulthood it’s this kind of unexplainable fear.

RB: I think the fear was similar to my childhood notion of possession. If I watched The Exorcist, I could open a door that couldn’t be shut—that I would somehow become susceptible to possession myself. Now, as an adult, I certainly don’t believe that.

PP:  What’s made the film more productive to me is that I’m trying to unpack what it  does technically to create fear. On a sensory level, there are things that happen in the film that are super interesting: for example, the use of the human voice and that old trope of the devil speaking human language backwards. There’s such an interesting connection between that idea and the role of recording technologies in the movie. Once I started watching The Exorcist  multiple times, it occurred to me that there’s a pivotal moment in the film when the priest records Regan [played by Linda Blair] while she’s in a state of possession for the first time, and then he plays back the recording of these sounds coming out of her on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tape recorder allows for a kind of scrubbing back and forth, at which point it’s discovered that when played backwards those sounds are actually human language.

RB: Oh wow! [Laugher.]

PP: So at that moment—it’s chilling—you are hearing the voice of Satan through this possessed girl, but simultaneously what you’re hearing is the recording apparatus.

RB: And it’s via the recording apparatus that you can actually translate it.

pfeiffer dutch interior
For his work Dutch Interior, Pfeiffer created a diorama of the house from The Amityville Horror and broadcast a live video stream from its interior.

PP: The recording apparatus is synonymous with the voice of Satan. So in a way, what it’s really saying is that the manipulation of sensory experience—the way that a filmmaker does it—is synonymous with possession,which is remarkable when you think about how tied memory is, for example, to recording technologies like film. I had this experience recently where I discovered a box of 8-millimeter family films. I can’t explain it, but it’s really uncanny to see these images for the first time since I was a kid of me as a baby being held by my father, because those images  literally created the memory. And that memory is synonymous with the film I saw; it wasn’t just a representation of the memory. That is the memory! I’m fascinated with the notion that, in the end, aspects of human subjectivity and experience are inextricably linked to recording processes and from images, the production of images.

RB: It’s truly natural in a way we don’t anticipate. We don’t think of machines as natural.

PP: Right. And to me, crucially, it’s anti-essentialist. It shows you that the foundation of who you are is not located inside of you; it’s located in an interface between your sensory apparatus and the world and its manipulation. If it’s essentially anything, it’s essentially contextual!

RB: And it’s shifting and changing—always!

PP: A primary visual technique that I’ve been using for a long time is erasure. It’s a very direct and immediate way to communicate, not so much to answer anything, but as a way to raise questions. What I love about the gesture of erasure is that it so immediately touches one on a sensory or emotional level and communicates the manipulability of a sense of individual identity. To erase a figure is ultimately to play with the background.

We understand how political campaigns and advertisements work. We know we’re being manipulated, but we also feel what we feel. A central mission of philosophy is to understand reality. Yet day to day, we function more on the level of recognizing that a red light means stop and a green light means go — not just in traffic but on the level of identity as well.

RB: There are so many nuanced things that I don’t think about that signify gender, race, and identity on a daily basis. Your act of erasing seems to eradicate many of these.

PP: Right.

RB: I think of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, in which the character is both seen and unseen; he’s truly understood through the lens of stereotypes. It seems like your work functions almost in an inverse way to that story.

Pfeiffer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse series recontextualizes images of contemporary sports spectacles using biblical language.
Pfeiffer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse series recontextualizes edited images of contemporary sports spectacles using biblical language.

PP: Well, you know, to come full circle, in some ways this touches on the question of the history  of the South and its racial dimension. One of the things that interests me about [UGA professor] Isabelle Wallace’s writing is her willingness to combine rigorous critical thinking with references to biblical literature, which in some ways I think is a big no-no.

RB: Right. [Laughter]

PP: It’s why I also appreciate you bringing up possession. With the kind of reality we’re dealing with today and the role of the media, such a mix is super pertinent and on-point because the political processes we’re involved with now are manipulations on an image level and on an emotional level. You can’t really engage in critical debate without some of these image manipulations. In some ways, that’s my understanding of what neoliberalism is: politics conducted on the level of images, or on the level of psychological manipulation.

RB: I’m interested in the way the baroque relates to contemporary practice. Seventeenth-century art was very much prescribed by the church to reform Renaissance and Mannerist art. They asked artists to make art that appealed to one’s emotional core, that stimulated piety, basically. That very thoughtful and controlled use of images seems really pertinent right now.

PP: Yeah, totally. Thinking back to Ralph Ellison and The Invisible Man, I feel like part of the problem is that race is usually construed as a special area of inquiry separate from the main subjects. What you said about The Invisible Man is a really interesting metaphor for how we live within image culture generally, not just in terms of race but in terms of identity and how we come to understand ourselves through images—which in some ways are stereotypes about ourselves—and yet there is no other way to understand ourselves. We were led to believe that these images are synonymous with who we are.

RB: And I think with Fragment of the Crucifixion, you’re not only making references to a biblical story but to a Francis Bacon painting, which itself makes reference to a Velázquez painting. In this very obvious but meaningful way, there’s a of series of connections that scrambles the meaning.

PP: Totally.

Rebecca Brantley teaches art history at Piedmont College. She is chair of exhibitions and programming at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art and was a participant in the inaugural cycle of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program

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