Paul Pfeiffer: Always In Search of Visual Charge

FLUX Special Section Arts Paul Pfeiffer
Images by Chris Rohrer and Joey Trisolini

Paul Pfeiffer contributed two installations to the 2019 Honolulu Biennial. One of them, Poltergeist, is a site-specific commision which incorporated the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum as frame and backdrop. Crown Prince Albert Edward Kauikeaouli Kaleiopapa a Kamehameha, as depicted in a famous royal portrait, anchors the memory palace Pfeiffer has built. The installation includes several child figures posed in the same manner as the prince, constructed out of 3D-printed materials and wood carved by Filipino master craftsmen whose skills are often applied to the iconography of the Santo Niño, the Christ Child. The piece allows Pfeiffer, and ourselves, to ruminate on memory, celebrity, poverty, sacrality, and the vulnerability of children in the global economy. How does a person so regarded slip from memory? Whose bodies matter? These are questions which demand every feeling person’s attention.

As a Hawaiian historian, I wondered, why did you settle on the image of Albert Kauikeaouli Kamehameha?

I am interested in the human figure or specific personalities. Even the history of images of the human figure, and the kind of psychological and historical weight of that. Since my earliest days as an artist, I have always been looking intuitively for images with a strong visual charge.

So, to get to your question, over the past couple of years, I started to think about the nature and the position of children in society. Children, to me, are a particularly potent emblem of capitalism. We think of them with a certain kind of purity or innocence. At the same time, it would be very hard to deny that in some ways, children are on the front line of everything that is the most perverse and messed up about the world right now. Children are used regularly by politicians as tools, to sell their brands. It is common knowledge that the advertising industry specifically targets young people. There is an interesting contradiction to me that’s embodied in children. We hold them up as everything that is pure in us, that we want to protect, and at the same time they are the most at risk as the world becomes evermore driven by the logic of the marketplace.

I had a question when I read the title of your piece, “Poltergeist.” I felt like it was a dumb question, “Who’s the poltergeist?” But actually I think the question is, “What are we haunted by?”

Yeah, exactly. Poltergeist, the German word, refers specifically to a playful ghost, but to me there’s an assocation with the irruption of the uncanny in this kind of everyday scenario of a suburban idyllic situation where everything is evidence of having attained a certain level of success. To then find horror in the middle of it raises the question of like, what happened? Honestly, I was surprised to find the figure of Prince Albert. I just found it interesting that very few of my friends and family knew who he was.Why would somebody so important be forgotten?

In highlighting that this trauma or this hope is buried, what do you think is at stake? What do we lose or what do we gain when we forget past trauma?

There is now an open debate about how the Marcos regime is remembered. The current administration, Duterte, has made moves to heroize Marcos. There was a real danger of people forgetting what Marcos represented, the blatant antidemocratic extremes his regime represented. There’s literally a battle over the memories of the new generation. Current leaders attempt to harness nationalism as a relatively easy, go-to form of identity, which has a lot of emotion behind it, in order to do whatever they want to do. That’s the danger.

Combining 3D printing with customary crafts of people known for carving these images for churches, I don’t know if that’s a comment on sacred and profane meaning, or plasticity and the kind of transience of which we are calling modern, but it’s disposable. I wanted you to address what these juxtapositions elaborate for you in the piece.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been on a particular exploration in the Philippines, an exploration of religious image-making there and the workshops that make the Catholic saints. A lot of wood carving also happens in Pampanga, specifically, towns like Bacolore and Betis, where historically religious icons have been carved for centuries. Technologically, an image and the making of them, it’s coming from the same place, the desire to exalt the human figure for whatever political or spiritual ends. In that context it suddenly occurred to me that the most important religious icon there is the Santo Niño de Cebú. Legend has it that that was the first religious icon to enter the Philippines and to be accepted by Filipino culture. At the Basilica Santo Niño, every year tens of thousands of people go to Cebú city to pay homage to the image of the baby Jesus … one image that was brought by Magellan. It’s another example of where the image of the child becomes emblematic of capitalism. It has become both the image of the purest thing that we could think of, which is the Christ child, and at the same time it’s like Christ child, the king. It’s the most powerful figure of all. How can that be? In one image you have the image of complete innocence, and in a way, via power, complete corruption. To me, there is a connection that I make mentally to Prince Albert there. To me it’s a huge contradiction, that on the one hand we feel very protective of our children and of innocence, and at the same time, we have a very high threshold to accept systemic perversion.

It did fascinate me, these images of the children. You’re showing this innocence and then juxtaposing them in this pose of Albert, like an echo. You’re setting up a relationship between them and him.

The photograph of Prince Albert Kamehameha shows him in a very stately pose, wearing very stately attire. It’s really the photograph of a crown prince, and the doppelgangers are the duplicates, specifically of children who occupy the lowest rung of the economic ladder in the Philippines. These are the children of fisher folk. It’s attempting to recast the poorest of the poor as being worthy of being valued the way that a crown prince would be valued.

I am sort of forcefully pointing to a connection across the Pacific. You know, it would’ve been much more obvious to cast children in Honolulu as Prince Albert. I’ve been asked, why go to the Philippines to do this? All I can say is that in the context of the Picture Gallery [in the Bishop Museum] you’ve got Hawaiian history on one side [in Hawaiian Hall] and you’ve got the history of migration across the Pacific in Pacific Hall on the other side. It’s known by most Filipinos in Hawai‘i that to a large degree the Philippines in that migration story is not fully represented. They left the Philippines off the map on the floor.

Wow. I didn’t even notice.

Check it out. That wooden map made with inlaid wood. A lot of trouble had gone into that beautiful map on the floor. Kids are brought in from all the schools to sit on that map on the floor and talk about their position in the migration story. And there is no Philippine islands there.

Did you tell the museum that?

I learned it from them [the staff at the museum]. I mean, they kind of sheepishly told me that. Growing up the way I grew up, that is an American story and that is a legitimate 21st-century story— people move around the world all the time and I’m trying to represent that movement. In some ways that movement is too complicated for a nationalist perspective. From a nationalist perspective, like in the Philippines, you fall off the radar if your past is too complicated.

Right, exactly.

America’s an expert at this kind of erasure of identity, erasure of history. I’m interested in scrambling that because I don’t believe in nationalist narratives. I feel like there are very questionable reasons why we subscribe to them. My interest in contemporary culture is the populism aspect of images that are meant to reach the greatest number of people and the way language is changing at this particular moment in history. We have a rise of leaders who are really experts in how to talk to the masses. This is a real thing that’s happening. There is a kind of experimentation going on with how to communicate with people. The rise of populism has to do with the rise of a new type of language, which is not verbal, and in a way, not logical, but more neurological. I’m interested in clocking this evolution and also participating in it to hopefully bring it to light, so that it’s not used to create some kind of a familiarity with what’s going on, so that people don’t fall for it so easily.

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