Best known for his research into US surveillance bases, for his latest work the artist and geographer turns his attention to the Yorkshire moors
Through the stone arches of a railway station, hazy views of the undulating Yorkshire moors, dotted with dry-stone walls and farm buildings, stretch out into a dramatic mauve sky.
The scene is part of a large-scale photographic work – An English Landscape – by American artist and geographer Trevor Paglen. Produced as part of the Art on the Underground series, the work stretches 62m along the length of the eastbound platform of Gloucester Road station, where it will be on show until July 2015.
Following in the tradition of English landscape painters, Paglen has taken the framing motif of the folly. Segments of a vast panoramic photograph pasted within the recesses of the decorative stone arches create the effect of windows looking out on to a familiar English landscape.
In conversation with the critic Ossian Ward at the opening of the work on 19 June, Paglen spoke about the works of Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. “These are landscapes that people owned and wanted to show off,” Paglen said. But the landscape Paglen frames here is one its owners are less keen to show off.
The work undergoes a gradual unveiling, the full picture only revealed in the brief intervals when District and Circle line carriages do not occupy the tracks. Coupled with the soft focus of the image, a series of jarring forms feature in the landscape. A cluster of white domes bob on the horizon like tethered hot-air balloons. They seem to have been transplanted there via Photoshop, but this is no camera trickery.
The white domes are radomes – dubbed “golf balls” for their dimpled geodesic shape – the protective skin that shelters the antenna of surveillance radars from weather and public view.
The domes form part of RAF Menwith Hill – one of the UK’s top-secret surveillance bases. Hiding in full sight, it covers one square mile of North Yorkshire moorland. The base is owned by the Ministry of Defence, but leased to the US Department of Defense, which staffs it with more than 2,000 personnel – two-thirds believed to be employees of the NSA. They are responsible for intelligence-gathering operations that involve intercepting satellite communications.
Menwith Hill has been on the go since 1954 and, nestled among the Yorkshire hills. It is as conspicuous and alien as you could ever hope a surveillance base to look. Paglen said he has no need to undertake secret missions to obtain his images, nor is the resulting work an act of provocation: “I’m just very simply saying, ‘let’s look’.” Monitoring the base from afar, he shot the image through a telescopic lens – picking up the distortion that gives the image its painterly tones.
Activist groups protest the occupation of the base by US forces. They claim it goes beyond its intelligence-gathering remit of intercepting hostile military operations and encroaches on the territory of espionage that will give the US the ability to carry out real-time military interventions through remote-controlled weapons.
“What things look like, and what they are contradict each other,” Paglen said. He admits to having an ambivalent attraction to these places. On the one hand he’s drawn to them; on the other, he’s “horrified” by their existence. “We really want the good and the beautiful to be the same thing. The beautiful is not the good.”
An English Landscape (American Surveillance Base near Harrogate, Yorkshire) by Trevor Paglen can be see at Gloucester Road tube station in London until July 2015