LondonPaul Pfeiffer: Incarnator
3 Duke Street, St. James’s London, SW1
“To me, the word ‘Incarnator’ is about production. The production of an image. The production of human flesh… What interests me is what production means in 21st century global capitalism, where the means of production have been radically separated from their natural function. This is Marx in the 21st century perfected into a global scheme; a branded production, where innocence is turned into a profit-making system in the face of a child.” – Paul Pfeiffer in conversation with Diana Campbell Betancourt
Exhibited for the first time in London, Paul Pfeiffer’s Incarnator is a multi-media installation, part-video and part-sculpture. In this work Pfeiffer used as his starting point the revered role of the ‘encarnador’ – a sculptor of holy Catholic figures intended as the focus of religious worship.
Encarnadores are celebrated for having the power to apparently breathe life into inanimate sculptures with their final brushes of paint, creating life-like effigies that seduce the eye into believing consciousness has been awoken in carved wood and paint. In the Philippines, this power can be most clearly seen through mass devotion to the Santo Niño de Cebú, a polychrome religious icon which was brought as a gift from Spain in 1521 by Magellan, making it one of the oldest Christian relics in the country. The tradition continues to this day with the images of Catholic idols carved by encarnadores produced for personal and communal devotion.
Central to this group of objects in Pfeiffer’s installation are the composite parts of an almost life-size carving of the pop star Justin Bieber. Though presented in parts, the figure is posed in resurrection form, complete with ‘Son of God’ tattoo across his torso. Bieber was discovered as a twelve-year-old child via a video he posted on YouTube and was propelled to world superstardom by an industry quick to capitalise on the power of youth. Since then his image has come to represent a kind of Peter Pan-like eternal adolescence, taking on the grown-up world.
The video element of the work is comprised of a collage of footage: live concerts by Justin Bieber are mixed with self- sufficient growers at work in the rice paddies of the Philippines; mass produced Bhuddist meditation DVDs collide with self-shot footage of young fans from around the world singing to Justin Bieber’s remix of Luis Fonsi’s Despacito. Within this mix of video footage is documentation of a group of young children (actually the children of the encarnadores) having their likenesses digitally scanned and reproduced by a 3D printer cut together with footage of the encarnadores themselves at work on their wooden carvings.
Pfeiffer introduces an unusual layering of technologies between these carved sculptures, video, and 3D scans and prints. We see the process of creating the series of disciple-like wooden busts of children that surround the Christ-like Bieber are made from digital scans that are then replicated by traditional carving methods, confusing our understanding of them, their production and their authorship. Other elements of the video production – camera, audio recorder, even moments of the footage itself – are also replicated in traditional carved wooden form in the installation, inverting the normal evolution of technology from analogue to digital.
The layered accumulation of video and carved objects in Incarnator expose the machinations behind the unsettling link between neo-colonialism, the capitalist exploitation of human rapture and the historical and present day use of images for subjugation and hegemony. Baudrillard argues in his Simulacra and Simulations that these images now precede or supersede the reality that they signify or represent and it is in fact now the image that we perceive as our reality rather than the reality itself. The ancient effigy of Christ becomes a deity in its own right as does a social media account become the face of our celebrity idols.
Through this work Pfeiffer uses his unmistakable visual language to examine the production of the human image: from the literal medieval icons used over hundreds of years by Catholic missionaries around the world, to the construction of the modern-day pop idol. Through the lens of the encarnador we are reminded of the process and synthesis of production, ultimately also drawing our attention to the role of Pfeiffer himself as an artist and author of images, often produced through laborious manipulation of existing source material.
Incarnator was initiated during the artist’s six-month residency at Bellas Artes Projects in Bagac, Bataan, Philippines in 2018. The work was originally exhibited at Bellas Artes Outpost, Manila, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt.
Paul Pfeiffer (b.1966, Honolulu) lives and works in New York. He has received numerous awards and fellowships including a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship and the Bucksbaum Award from the Whitney Museum. In 2011, he was the subject of a retrospective at Sammlung Goetz in Munich, Germany. Selected exhibitions include the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge US; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; MUSAC León, León; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Baibakov Art Projects, Moscow; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; Artangel, London; Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Manila. His work is held in international collections including LACMA, Los Angeles; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Pinault Collection, Paris; Castello di Rivoli, Turin; and MoMA, New York.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)