The 7 Lights The New Museum April 9 – June 29, 2008
Tin Drum Trilogy The New Museum May 16, 2008
Paul Chan has suggested that The 7
Lights signal a turn in his objectives as an artist. While his previous wide-screen video animations could be perceived as limited in their specificity of format, indifference to location and consistency of logistics and materials, The 7 Lights evince a heightened sensitivity to the surrounding space as they track the contradictory relations and fraught imperatives between religion, enlightened consumerism and American politics. Dispersed throughout the entire third floor of the New Museum, the “Lights” (comprised of six projections and a score for the seventh) are perhaps best seen as comprising a tactical fold within that space.
The largest open area in the exhibition is given over to "1st
Light" and "2nd Light". Set adjacent to one another, two trapezoids are projected end to end onto the floor. They begin as monochrome planes of crimson—evoking the breakpoint just past dawn when the earth is shadowed by the sun. (All of the “Lights” are fourteen minutes long, and move from dawn to dusk.) Time passes, and the rosy wash modulates into russet orange, to yellow, and so on. Day breaks, and dark shapes slide into the wan pools of light.
Light", a utility pole, lines trailing, emerges slowly from the bottom of the field, rotating in space until it aligns itself lengthwise with the left side of the space. "2nd Light" orients itself similarly, with the outlines of a broad, lone tree coalescing to the right. A moment later it is replete with leaves, and a steady procession of pikes and flags passes over the bottom edge of the clearing. Vantage point becomes an issue here: only the regalia and bobbing weapon ends of this rag-tag militia are visible. No humans appear until they begin falling from the sky. Occasionally larger (i.e. closer) flags ruffle across the entire projection, blocking out the source of light. Across the way in "1st Light", gravity turns selective as subway cars, I-pods, glasses and cell phones ascend idly past the utility pole. More bodies fall from the sky.
If The 7
Lights are said to evoke Biblical themes of creation and apocalypse, they also recall 9/11 and the interminable conflict in the Middle East. Faced with this darkened (and familiar) crossroads of spirituality and militarism, some commentators have turned to Plato’s cave with its shadow plays and cell-like viewing conditions; from there one can return to the present through the themes of surveillance and compulsory voyeurism, which can be taken as a blurring of the self and the state.
One reference for such readings would be Michel Foucault, who had more proximate settings in which to locate the play of shadows and spectatorship. Speculating on the condition of madness in the 1960s, he wrote “in the hospitals pharmacology has already transformed the wards of the agitated into vast tepid aquariums.” By the mid 1970s, mental functioning and psychological relations were submitted to new levels of scrutiny and madness disappeared—reclassified as clinical schizophrenia.
Against the splintering conditions of the Cold War and emergent rogue states of the 1970s and ‘80s, the social chimera and distancing figures of madness and sanity were subsumed into society and replaced by terror and security. Foucault chose the term pastoral to account for the enabling methods of governments to insert themselves between such fictive conditions. Specifically, the pastoral is the rationalizing means by which individuals imagine themselves to be self-empowered and independent of the political state, the lens through which the condition of being governed comes to appear natural and inevitable.
Chan’s aesthetic, then, is a pastoral one. The pastoral is not concerned with the critical use of documents or facts; nor does it seek to expose hidden motivations. Above all, the pastoral has to do with conduct. During the late Middle Ages, conduct referred mostly to self-determined modes of comportment, but over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was leveraged out of its religious context to suit the precepts of modern government. Chan’s exhibition makes explicit reference to this transitional moment with "Untitled (for Saint Caravaggio)", a reworking of Caravaggio’s still life "Basket of Fruit" of 1596.
Part of the scandal and the beauty of Caravaggio’s work lay in its refusal to transform the mundane world through exalted religious or humanist trappings. Just as his career moved between the domains of the church and the court, his paintings developed a perceptual ethics for this and other netherworlds. Untitled renders this indeterminate space by simulating the effect of a camera obscura, a seventeenth-century model of consciousness. For many, the camera obscura is seen as an extension of the perspectival picture plane: the privileged format for viewing the secular western world from Renaissance painting through the I-phone. It might be argued, however, that one mode does not supersede the other so much as oppose it in emphasis: the picture plane is better seen as a tool for symbolizing the world, while the perceptual model of the camera obscura serves to fix the human subject.
Lights break down the presuppositions and functional orientation of both these givens. Shapes are both flat and three-dimensional—shadows and shadowed, gliding and rotating—and presume various applications and modalities of vision without allowing for their resolution. If the “Lights” displace the image onto the floor, they also convert the image into a surface, one that cuts across the world rather than plumbing its depths. Window frames delimit the field of vision while power lines, threads and cobwebs drift past, tethering the otherwise anarchic spaces. Despite this reshuffling of pieties, few viewers are willing to step inside the moving shadows. (At the 2006 Whitney Biennial it was often difficult to see "1st Light" as viewers piled up around the entrance, reluctant to enter the work.) Eventually many visitors do walk contemptuously through them as they fade to a barely visible sheen. This might be a willful gambit: an aspect of Chan’s interest in philistinism and an index of the work’s fragility.
These tensions are exploited by the New Museum’s installation. "4th
Light", the only one of the six to be projected upright, is folded into a corner directly opposite the stairway that connects the third and fourth floor galleries. Spare in motif and incident, it is often overwhelmed by the overhead lights and museumgoers spilling down the stairway. Infinitely more solid, "5th Light" occupies the darkest corner of the museum adjacent to an active employee passageway. Over the erratic pulse of floating machine guns and hand grenades come the sounds of doors opening and closing as museum staff pass by and greet one another. Such porosity makes one acutely aware of the works’ conceptual linkage to the space and of the separation of both from Chan’s putative subject matter. One is rarely alone with the projections, but the point seems to be that one shouldn’t ever feel so. That shadows and silhouettes can be identified from any direction means also that one never comprehends the work strictly as a member of a group—whether surrounded by friends or strangers.
Rather than referring vaguely to Biblical events, or pointedly and repetitively to the trauma of 9/11, perhaps The 7
Lights articulate the more specific but widespread disintegration of modern civil society. Perhaps this is the disaster moving through Chan’s work. Perhaps as well, it was felt more acutely in the Middle East and elsewhere long before it re-registered in the capitals of Western society.
Wouldn’t this, then, dissolve Chan’s strict differentiation between art and politics and instead see them as dialectically entwined? If the “Lights” reveal depopulated worlds full of objects—worlds devoid of creativity and imagination—his videos, in turn, show lives reduced to legal status, economic privilege and religious refuge. On May 16th, in conjunction with the exhibition, the New Museum screened Chan’s Tin Drum Trilogy, a group of single-channel videos made between 2002-05, that treat the current American conflict in the Middle East through an ethnography of intimacy, an artistic strategy that Chan sometimes calls “sleeping with the enemy.” The first of these, "Re: The Operation" anticipates the dark pop vision of his projected work "My Birds My Birds…trash… the future" (2004). Conceived on the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, "Re. The Operation" renders the members of the Bush administration as foot soldiers in the military campaign. Divested of their authority to say what history must be, their identities and motivations are conveyed through the same means as those with no other recourse: emails, digital photographs, and the banalities of mass media.
Parisian film critic Serge Daney once asked, “Where does obscenity begin and where does pornography end?” This is one question already raised by Tin Drum Trilogy and will likely be extended to Chan’s current project on the Marquis de Sade. Pornography and war are run together in "Re: The Operation" as obligatory modes of individual rights. This collapse, and the arrogance of the administration, are rendered sharp and stark in "Now Promise, Now Threat," the third piece in Tin Drum Trilogy. There the Nebraskans interviewed by Chan often appear poignant in their helpless resignation to the callow torpor of electoral politics and the obscene disconnect between that process and the degraded and placid realities of much American life—the vast tepid aquarium realized everywhere. (How else would one describe post-Katrina New Orleans, the city that fell outside the pastoral conditions of recent decades and that is also the city where Chan staged a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?). The techniques of the pastoral were meant to keep the government at an apparent remove from the actions of everyday life, all the while imposing a reflexive set of behaviors, fears and beliefs that would render that distance consistent and stable. Instead of separating art and politics absolutely, perhaps the intimacy of Chan’s practice—in all of its forms—seeks to keep them at a relative distance from each other, one that exposes the inadequacies of each in their present guise. Such a practice might then open up a space in which to formulate practices of counter-conduct and dissidence against the “madness” of common life.
WILLIAM MCMANUS is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art at Vassar College.