Paul Chan Rhi Anima
On ViewGreene Naftali
March 3 – April 15, 2017
The first encounter with Rhi Anima, Paul Chan’s third solo exhibition at Greene Naftali, spanning both of the Chelsea gallery’s spaces, is in the outdoor entranceway, where an inflatable sprite, arms raised—not unlike the Air Dancer tube-men of suburban car lots—whacks the glass of a window and waves at passersby. Once inside, the typical silence of the white cube is immediately overcome by the sound of several industrial fans, resembling the expansiveness of the wind at sea. Generated by Chan’s objects with a constancy of white noise, this wind just as quickly collapses into the purr of an infant’s sleep aid, the exhaust in a bathroom, or the mechanical whir of a projector, which the artist, known for his videos, has consciously abandoned as a tool. This last association befits his stated intent to “find new ways to create moving image works beyond the ‘frame,’” while retaining some awareness of what is absent. In taking the Ancient Greek concept of pneuma, which can mean breath, spirit or soul, Chan reanimates the inanimate by constructing fabric bodies, activated by the aforementioned fans, that become “breathers,” as he calls them. Throughout the exhibition, large ink-on-paper drawings coded with Chan’s own numerical system and the terms de se and de re, were revealed as being used in the patternmaking process for each of his flailing vignettes.
The work may seem completely unexpected based on Chan’s output before a self-imposed exile (during which he developed Badlands Unlimited, his publishing press), but since his return, there are hints of incremental developments that have culminated here. In 2014, he publicly debuted the series titled “Arguments” as part of Selected Works at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, where some of those works also featured nodes of concrete-filled shoes embedded with extension sockets, daisy chained to create networks or circuits, sometimes functional, sometimes not. The 2015 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim, Nonprojections for New Lovers, pushed the point further of Chan’s waning reliance on projectors and screens, and also introduced an early breather in Tetra Gummi Phone (2015). These elements combined in the installation Hippias Minor (2015) at the DESTE Foundation project space at a slaughterhouse in Hydra, Greece, but the turning point—and public predecessor to this exhibition—has to be the one-night installation shown as part of Eiko Otake’s Danspace performance and lecture cycle, Platform 2016: A Body in Places. There, artists were asked to respond to Otake’s artistic concerns (of the body’s relationship to a place, the artist as wanderer, and how we bear witness to change), and Chan’s creatures, serving as a background to and as collaborators in the dancer’s sorrowful performance, had by then become much more clearly figurative.
Which brings us back to the ghosts that tickle the air surrounding and passing through Rhi Anima. Despite the obscure titles, they are particularly American ghosts, some easier to unpack than others and existing in different emotional registers. The gnarly shoe-covered tree from Chan’s earlier video, My Birds... Trash... The Future (2004), appears to be reincarnated as the lively Popophemus (2016) (which could possibly translate to “Pop Music” in Chan’s wordplay, just as Rihanna gets some love in the show poster and hidden amongst the works); and the shoes that once hung over its branches, representing the dead, although still disembodied, are now live with the electrical current they physically carry to their partnered sculptures.
To see Chan’s muslin models and the white figures on the eighth-floor gallery, you’re pressed to read them as Ku Klux Klan hoods, although their billowy, marshmallow bodies overwhelmingly recall Philip Guston’s interpretations, not the real thing. Each scene in Madonna With Childs (2016), De Se Moerae (2017), and Dimposium (2016)—even Baigneurs Sans Rien (2017) if we’re to deduce that it at least partially represents Plato’s Phaedrus—is a seemingly innocent cycle of tug of war between elder and younger characters trying to have their way. Downstairs, the figures in black are more solemn and recall the images of torture at Abu Ghraib, even when they take detours, as they do in Le Baigneur 1 (2016), which recalls benign scenes of bathers painted by Matisse or Manet. In Pillowsophia (after Ghostface) (2016), the presumable nod to Ghostface Killah pulls it away from references to the Iraqi prisoners, Jesus on the cross, Trayvon Martin, or any number of martyrs, hooded or otherwise.
The centerpiece of the main gallery, Pentasophia (2016)—subtitled in French: The happiness of living in the disaster of the Western world—is the most exuberant display, where five figures seem engaged in an unknown ritual. Fixed to a platform situated over an almost too-literal trash heap of history, one can spend some time trying to decipher what individual photos, pages, and open books might have to do with the larger installation, or worry that the one extension cord powering the whole thing could accidentally short and set it ablaze, as the celebration continues above.
The atmosphere is charged, but Chan doesn’t give in to moralizing. And because he undercuts moments of seriousness with his titular puns and other obscuring methods, he doesn’t give us much of anything. That is to say, he actively flattens affect, so that as an audience our projections have the widest latitude to inhabit the fluttering parables. It certainly demands more of the viewer, but it’s unclear that the breathers are as good at attention holding as they are at attention grabbing. As one exits the gallery, the repeated bowing of Pseudo Pathethicus seems to have grown deeper to form a repentant supplication, almost groveling for us to forgive them, for they know not what they do.