On my way to the New Museum, I ran into a young curator. I told him I was looking forward to seeing The 7 Lights, a series of video projections and drawings, “because we all love Paul Chan.”
He looked at me funny. “That kind of consensus,” he said, “makes me really nervous.”
I’d meant it as a joke, although it contained a kernel of truth. In a brief half-decade, Chan, an artist-activist, has racked up some powerful art-world supporters.
Last December, Artforum editor Tim Griffin kicked off the “Best of 2007” issue by discussing Chan’s version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, staged with the Classical Theater of Harlem on the streets of New Orleans. Chan is also one of the first artists to have a solo show in the New Museum’s new building on the Bowery. In the catalog, George Baker, an assistant professor at UCLA, anoints Chan’s work as “one of the darkest visions to trouble the landscape of contemporary art in at least a generation.”
Chan came to the art world’s attention in 2003 with a double-sided DVD animation-projection titled Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization—After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, a jarring meditation on culture and apocalypse that references Beckett, rapper Biggie Smalls, filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as the French socialist/philosopher Fourier and the “outsider” artist Darger.
Chan is a paragon of “good” politics (anti-war, pro-labor), but I suspect that writers and curators also like him because he’s well-read. Interviews are peppered with references to Adorno, Nietzsche, Brecht, and iek. In the audio guide (yes, the audio guide—more on that shortly), curator Massimiliano Gioni calls Chan one of the most erudite artists he’s ever met.
This matters little, however, when you’re standing in front of an artwork. What you recognize instead is that The 7 Lights is considerably starker than the hallucinogenic,acidhued Happiness. . . . Each one consists of a near-monochrome projection cast on the floor or the wall with silhouette images drifting through it. Students of deconstruction will note Chan’s use of the crossed-out word “light” to indicate light’s simultaneous absence and presence in the works—a pretentious touch, but whatever.
Silhouettes of a tree, telephone pole, and windows serve as visual armatures through which birds, animals, cars, bikes—a litany of objects—and finally humans (an overdetermined 9/11 allusion) slowly ascend or descend, depending on where you stand to view the work. Gioni trots out the religious angle, stressing Chan’s Catholic upbringing, the telephone pole as crucifix, etc. Baker describes the works in formalist terms (the video loops participate in the “structure of repetition”; the floor projections update Leo Steinberg’s “flatbed picture plane”), and he rhapsodizes on the “momentousness of the project.”
Poeticism and beauty are leavened here with specters of violence. But The 7 Lights feels more minor than momentous. Whereas Happiness . . . was a manic, absurdist response to a culture that produces both literature (or art) and war—achieved partially by drafting off Darger’s disturbing oeuvre—here the colorless shadow-images register either as heavy-handed symbols or as confused emblems that look intermittently comic and somber. You think of James Turrell, whose image-free projections are perceptually and spiritually affecting. Turrell is a very different artist, but in his work you fathom the paradoxical presence and absence of light, without resorting to rhetoric to hold it up.
In fact, one of the best Lights isn’t a projection, but a row of collages on music-composition paper that recalls Jean Arp’s Dadaist collages or John Cage’s scores—works predicated on chance and the idea that “rational” Western culture, riddled with war and destruction, had hit the skids. They also set up a nice relationship between sight and sound. Which takes me back to the audio tour.
Most museum audio tours rely on platitudes and pat interpretations—unless the artists record them, as in the Richard Serra show at MOMA or the 2000 Whitney Biennial. But the New Museum seemed like the perfect institution to attempt an overhaul. On a hunch, I figured I’d give it a try.
Midway through the tour, it becomes obvious that Chan was present when Gioni recorded his spiel. By the last section, for The 4th Light, the artist could contain himself no more.
“I don’t know why you have to bring that up!” he complains, in what sounds like a genuinely unstaged outburst, after Gioni compares his work to Caravaggio. “Can’t we just let people alone to see it? Are we doing something other than giving people a sense of authority when we talk about these works?”
A tense discussion ensues, concluding with Gioni saying to Chan: “Your voice is the most problematic one . . . the one I should never listen to. When you look at the work, [your voice] is just as equal to mine and to that of any other viewer” (sic).
“Huh,” Chan says, clearly unconvinced.
Here is where the fireworks are, the real dialogue about art, vision, history, and power. Too bad the works themselves didn’t register the same impact.