Adorno wrote, “Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived.” In that sense, it’s skewed to view Paul Chan’s work as primarily aesthetic or to claim he’s a Greenbergian formalist. After all, electric zombies, psychedelic mayhem, and pop culture permeate his art. As do politics, parable, and an uncanny feel for present-day paranoia. Even if you believe that My birds . . . trash . . . the future, the 17-minute digital-video centerpiece of Chan’s impressive Greene Naftali solo debut, is only an animated tapestry—if you don’t grasp that he’s conflating Beckett and the Bible, lifting figures from Blake and Goya, and inserting Biggie Smalls and Pier Paolo Pasolini, or understand that the figures with backpacks are suicide bombers—it’s still clear that this artist uses the medium of video to, in Clement Greenberg’s words, “explore effects exclusive to itself.”
Chan’s structural originality with the medium is not only unusual for one otherwise so preoccupied with subject matter, it’s atypical when it comes to video. In spite of all that’s been done with it, in strictly formal terms video hasn’t changed that much since Nauman, Wegman, Acconci, et. al began deploying it nearly 40 years ago. Even today, it is either part of or projected on sculpture, used in performance or as documentation, or seen on walls and monitors. The big thing Matthew Barney accomplished with video was to get the physicality of sculpture to inhabit the cathode-ray tube—no small feat.
In a darkened gallery at Greene Naftali, Chan has suspended a long, narrow, two-sided screen. Projected on both sides is a desolate landscape with a barren tree. Smoke billows and birds gather, stars traverse the night sky, sunrise and sunset come and go, and an interval of Rothko-like haze appears midway. Early on, a vulture pilfers Biggie Smalls’s coat and brings it to a naked man (supposedly Pasolini) on the reverse screen. Later, photographers fire flashbulbs, lovers kiss, and hunters kill the birds. In one of the seven sequences, reams of paper blow through the air in a Jeff Wall/Hiroshige-like tempest. Finally, an army of suicide bombers triggers an Armageddon. All this to the sound of chirping birds and ringing cell phones. Chan combines history, desire, and revelation with nightmare—what the Bible called “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.”
Yet despite his evocative, if ambiguous, narrative, Chan’s greatest weapons are formal. First and best is his extravagant, eye-popping color—a mixture of Warhol, Dearraindrop, The Simpsons, South Park, Celestial Seasonings, and Peter Max. Also alluring is his low-tech Atari-like paint box-Photoshop technique, which is simple and effective: Finely drawn figures repeat erratic motions. These qualities, combined with the panoramic Henry Darger horizontality, the two-sided screen, and something epic and a little mad, suggest that Chan, as Greenberg would say, “is asserting the nature of his medium.” In addition, almost everything you’re seeing has apparently been derived from somewhere else. This creates visual glitches and encourages a kind of hallucinogenic time travel. All this saves Chan from being merely a trippy cartoonist.
Chan’s compassionate yet caustic politics, visual intensity, and graphic flair are reminiscent of Keith Haring. Chan may be one of those artists who have the natural ability to reach wider audiences, although he needs to avoid the formulaic. (Indeed, My birds already resembles his previous video.) Regardless, Chan connects to artists as unalike as Jonathan Horowitz and Nancy Chun (whose politics are equally sharp), Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno (who also like to slip inside of history), Rachel Harrison and William Kentridge (who mesmerize with their media while telling meaningful stories), and Stan Douglas, who, in his outstanding Hors-Champs (1992), utilized a double-sided screen.
Two-sidedness is key to My birds. To see the work in its entirety, you must walk from one side of the screen to the other. The scenes depicted on either side are largely the same, only seen from different points of view. Apart from your wondering what’s on the other side, on a philosophical level, this bifurcation vividly illustrates the intricacy of multi-varient looking: You know that no matter what you’re seeing, there’s another way of seeing it. This dual vision does a number of remarkable things: It replaces a hierarchical read of images with something more involved and indeterminate. It then replaces itself with the notion that there are far more than two ways to read anything, at the same time suggesting that all systems are rife with hidden agendas. Also, seeing things from different sides gives the no-dimensional void of video a real tangibility: You experience the allure of what Olafur Eliasson called “the soft dimension.”
Finally, there’s the perceptual rift that occurs at the point where you pass from one screen to the other. For an instant, everything splinters: The screen becomes a hanging sculpture, the picture disappears, near and far blur, and perception becomes abstract. This momentary rupture produces the remarkable sense that you may actually be perceiving how a work of art achieves meaning rather than grasping what it means—that somehow you’ve slipped into an unstable space where certainty is being dismantled.