x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

To the end of the world

Paul Chan's new work envisions the sudden disappearance of humanity.

A still from Paul Chan's 1st Light.
A still from Paul Chan's 1st Light.

The Hong Kong-born, Nebraska-raised Paul Chan, whose works have taken on natural disasters, international wars and religious fervour, is at the helm of a new American political art movement. Although art and politics have long been uneasy - some might say dangerous - bedfellows, the charged political atmosphere of recent years (and, perhaps, America's mishandling of that atmosphere), has allowed politically minded work to move from the fringes of the art world to its centre. The most recent Whitney Biennial, to take one example, included a large number of overtly political works.

While many critics - and other artists - have greeted these works with equal amounts of hesitation and disdain (and 69 per cent of respondents to a 2004 survey by the New York Foundation for the Arts felt that "political art is boring"), young museum curators continue to champion politically minded works. New York's New Museum, newly relocated to a building resembling a stack of mesh boxes on the Bowery, has become a must-stop downtown spot. Following an inaugural exhibit called Unmonumental, a group show of collage and assemblage installations, which established the museum at the cutting edge of contemporary art in New York, the museum's third-floor space has now been given over to Chan.

Over the past few years, Chan has gained guru-like status among a small group of avid followers who admire the whimsicality and boldness of his art, his sustained activism and perceptive philosophical wisdom (as hinted at by his unrelenting quotations of a wide range of references during lectures and interviews). Chan's latest intellectual pronouncement, as seen in a series of digital projections called The 7 Lights, is that the world is coming to an end - or at least that it's inching ever closer to being upended. This series, which he began in 2005 and is being shown for the first time in its entirety in the US, is meant, the show's catalogue tells us, to evoke the seven days of creation, or rapture. Projected on floors and walls, each of these slow-moving, 14-minute long lyrical meditations begins at the crack of daylight and ends when the lights fade out. In the interim, man and everything man-made - mobile phones, cars, guns, glasses, shopping bags - are sucked up by some ominous, all-annihilating force. Viewers unfamiliar with Christian theology - or those who haven't read any of the literature accompanying the exhibit - are inclined to read these works as representing natural catastrophes against which human beings are powerless, a consequence perhaps of our environmental practices. The cyclical nature of the works also invokes the idea of history repeating itself, with the implication that if human beings keep focusing on technological and industrial advances rather than spiritual coexistence, they will never be able to stop the cycles of destruction.

The most unsettling images in these works are bodies spiralling upwards or shooting downwards, sometimes in clasped groups of two or threes. For most New Yorkers, these falling bodies call to mind the events of September 11. When asked, Chan, who is now based in New York, admits, "You can't help but see an echo." But he says the work was inspired by the idea of a Last Judgement. Chan says that he never anticipated that in the early 20th century in America he would have to think about god as often as he is made to. "If you believe that the 21st century is in fact the turn of the century, it didn't seem to turn very much," he says.

Whether he views religion as a redemptive power, one that will save us from our own propensity for destruction or the force propagating the violence, is unclear. Either way, it isn't pretty. With these works, Chan confirms his status as, in the words of his New Museum catalogue, "one of the darkest visions to trouble the landscape of contemporary art in at least a generation". It is certainly in keeping with his earlier works, particularly the fantastical animations Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger) (1999-2003) and My Birds. . . Trash. . . The Future (2004) which crescendo into a spectacle of brutality and desolation. But while the knowing appropriations - the flattening of colours, the bitmatted silhouettes and landscapes, the sackful of references to contemporary and historical artists and writers - reduced them into South Park shenanigans, the deliberation and carefully orchestrated chaos of The 7 Lights are harder to walk away from unscathed.

In conjunction with the show, the New Museum recently screened Chan's Tin Drum Trilogy, a three-part series which may be considered his most overtly political work. It includes, in order of completion, Re_The Operation (2002), a deadpan imagining of the main characters in the Bush administration (Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Karl Rove, et al.) as wounded soldiers writing home or to each other; Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), a graceful, 50-minute-long documentation of everyday life in Iraq on the dawn of the American invasion; and Now Promise Now Threat (2005), a heady mix of interviews with Americans from his home state of Nebraska and footage from Iraq, which illustrates, according to the New Museum's press release, "the often unexpected lines connecting people, religion and politics in 'red-state' America." In the same document, Chan notes that these works share one theme: "that to love your enemy is to know your enemy", adding: "I essentially sleep with the enemy and the time spent creating these sleep-works becomes the space to both escape from and engage with what it means to live through an infinite war."

Despite the avowed political themes in his work and the fact that some of his art is a direct result of his political activities, Chan shuns the label of "artist-activist" - he insists there is a clear demarcation between his artistic endeavours and his activism; while the latter is concerned with facts on the grounds and the current realities, the former is entirely liberated from such constraints and from what he calls the "burden" of responsibility. "One of the pleasures of being an artist is that you can redescribe what it means to be responsible," he says. But he does wonder if some of the works are misconstrued when viewed in art spaces. In the example of his Baghdad project, which was the product of a monthlong trip with the Nobel-peace nominated organisation Voices in the Wilderness in an effort to "stop the invasion", he worries that it has been designated to obscurity.

Luckily, for him and us, he lives in a time when dissemination is easy, and through his website, www.nationalphilistine.com, he is able to make accessible other parts of that project, a series of portraits of Iraqis titled This is the Baghdad You Destroyed, as well as other important works, such as a poetic documentary of Lynne Stewart, a radical American lawyer who was convicted of providing material support to a terrorist organisation after allegedly distributing messages from her client, the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Chan's website also documents one of his most ambitious projects, staging a series of performances of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in devastated areas of post-hurricane New Orleans.

Chan may be but one of a steadily growing number of artists currently making political work but he is one of the few able to mix contemporary technology with older ideas of spirituality with ease, crossing from the boundaries of the political to the religious with equal scrutiny and sense of purpose. In an essay in the show's catalogue, the young curator Massimiliano Gioni writes: "Chan's universe exists in a state of permanent catastrophe that strangely resembles the world in which we live. And yet... there is a modesty, or maybe better, a severity in his work that sets it apart from the pornography of war."

The repetitive imagery and motifs of destruction in the The 7 Lights projections are numbing, in the way that any media images of wars or natural disasters are. But you can't help, while standing to watch the unrelenting devastation, being overcome by a realisation of your own complicity through apathy and passivity. The world is spiraling out of control because we are allowing it. Chan's work might not move you to action, per say, but it will move you.

Nana Asfour is on the staff of The New Yorker, and writes frequently on Middle Eastern art and culture.