PRINT December 2007


Waiting for Godot: Paul Chan In New Orleans

Placard in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans for Paul Chan and Creative Time’s production of Waiting for Godot, 2007. Photo: Paul Chan.

AT THE CLOSE OF 2007, one gets the sense that art—like the ever-forgetful Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—is once more struggling to take off its boot. In light of a booming market whose culture of investment is continually eclipsing any sense of art’s speaking meaningfully to society at large, and against the backdrop of political developments whose increasing gravity only underscores that diminished relationship, many artists are seeking venues beyond the conventional circuitry of the art world (and scuttling any vestiges of the myth of art’s autonomy) to obtain a renewed sense of relevance and consequence in practice.* Art is, it seems, in want of a little airing out.

Paul Chan’s production of Godot in New Orleans last month would appear to be the latest, convincing evidence not only of this desire but also of its potential. To culminate a semester-long residency at Xavier University and the University of New Orleans, the artist invited the Classical Theatre of Harlem to stage Beckett’s play en plein air in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods, both sites of terrible devastation by Hurricane Katrina. Chan’s inspiration is, of course, numbingly clear: More than two years after the cataclysm, and after much posturing by officials at every level of government, the hardest-hit people of New Orleans are still waiting for help rebuilding their lives. Even when assistance does come, it is often deeply flawed; just during the short time of Godot’s two-weekend run, for instance, FEMA prohibited its own staff from entering the trailers provided as living quarters to citizens who lost their homes in Katrina, due to dangerous levels of formaldehyde. (Ask for a carrot, as Beckett would say, and you’ll invariably get a turnip.) The abandoned structures of ravaged New Orleans—most still bearing the spray-painted codes of search parties long departed, or else the pink notices of parish repo men to come—and the surrounding, overgrown landscape, eerily suspended in time, seem a ready-made theater for this tragicomedy beginning on a country road with a single tree at a near-perpetual twilight.

Chan’s project is significant—at least within artistic circles—given the dangers inherent in any effort to bring art to, and into, such a situation. For his part, the artist chose the two locations and contributed props—a pathetic tree he made, a broken windowpane, a moldy refrigerator door—and then surreptitiously placed around the city a number of low-end signs bearing Beckett’s famously spare opening description of Godot’s scenery. Spotting one of the placards roadside, one might be tempted to imagine Chan’s whole endeavor as only the most literal manifestation of a recent trend in which artists and curators have been setting aside the terms of “site” for those of “setting,” apparently creating an intimate relationship with a specific locale when, in fact, making of their chosen avenues a kind of psychologized, historical stage set. (Consider the representational quality to the last Berlin Biennial’s atmospheric summoning of history along a single street, or Pierre Huyghe’s claim that he sought to “‘re-scenarize’ the real” with his 2003 Streamside Day Celebration project.) And then there is the often fraught matter of how the artist’s own presence, as someone invited to work “on location”—on commission, in effect—has become an arbiter of value for typically immaterial work in an increasingly globalized art world.

But Godot is, in this regard, unique for the relationship with context it establishes. As previously demonstrated by its staging in prisons from Wuppertal, Germany, to San Quentin, California—as well as in the war zone of Sarajevo, notably directed by Susan Sontag—the play brings the nothing within it to bear on everything around it. Or, speaking more richly, the nothing of the play is inevitably inscribed by the everything around it, such that the work has the portable acuity of allegory. (While nothing happens in the play, it suggests something is happening around it; one is reminded of the inflatable rat used by unions to denote labor disputes in Manhattan.) “What’s left to recognize?” asks Estragon, standing in the horror vacui of the Lower Ninth Ward, where the actors’ voices literally echo throughout the play against the fateful levee behind them (and where they can exit the “stage” merely by walking out past the edge of light). “To be dead is not enough for them,” says Vladimir on the steps of a house in Gentilly, speaking to how the voices of the past can still be heard in the present—regardless of the fact that the house has been partially renovated by an investor who, as it happens, recently bought a couple buildings on the block. With the words, the site only opens up more to the eyes. And here, if Godot has the incisiveness of allegory, Chan’s signage obtains the public, poetic, political dimension of graffiti.

The consequences of this energized public dimension are no less important. While no doubt partly intended to draw renewed outside attention to the city’s plight, this Godot was clearly made using vernacular terms of community, with the play appearing only after gumbo was served to the audience (who then walked to the site in a second-line parade), and depending on grassroots efforts by activists such as Robert Green—who still lives in the Ninth Ward, in one of the aforementioned FEMA trailers—to draw in a hometown crowd that, identifying all too easily with Beckett’s prose, grew with each night’s production. (A kind of tragic humor was to be found here, as Wendell Pierce, for instance, found his Vladimir observing that he’d never seen so many white people in the Ninth Ward.) Indeed, some two thousand people had to be turned away from the production on the final weekend, and by then, audience had become constituency—as evidenced by Mayor Ray Nagin’s own express desire to attend on the final night. Informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to make a speech, he never showed up.

*The dynamic is plainly articulated in Artforum's year-end issue. See, for example, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's discussion of Gerhard Richter's recent project for the Cologne Cathedral in the issue; and Tomasz Fudala's exposition of a text penned in 2007 by Artur Zmijewski in “Warsaw: On the Ground,” reproduced online.