New York

Paul Chan

Greene Naftali Gallery

Act I. A country road. A tree. Evening. Act II. Next day. Same time. Same place.

Anyone familiar with the sparse setting of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (his 1948 “tragicomedy in two acts”) likely recognized it as the skeleton upon which Paul Chan hung cacophonous skin for his debut solo show. Yet Chan—who previously has paired such seemingly incongruous aesthetics and philosophies as those of Charles Fourier and Henry Darger—here added a blast of hellfire from the book of Leviticus and peopled his Beckettian stage with, among others, the digital likenesses of the late rapper Biggie Smalls and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, twenty birds, and a bat. The “stage” was a long, framed screen hanging diagonally across a darkened gallery, each side presenting half of a two-channel, seventeen-minute animated video projection. The panoply of characters, which seemed to multiply and self-destruct exponentially, did not exchange dialogue (except in one case, where ominous mathematical equations acted as subtitles) but rather maimed, raped, and cannibalized one another to the accompaniment of a disconcerting sound track of tinny cell-phone rings and car alarms.

If this sounds like a hideous spectacle, it was—but one with unexpectedly austere grace. Using the ultraflat graphics and acidic, jarring colors that now signify techno-futurist terrain, My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future, (2004), was ugly, mean, and desperate. Neon-orange-clad hunters shoot down enormous birds, which lie writhing in their own blood; Beckett’s tree becomes Goya’s, hung with the bodies of humans and a dog; naked paparazzi (including one amputee) attempt to take photographs from the safety of a Hummer while a vulture struggles to keep them at bay; a man on all fours wolfs down the remains of a dead bird.

Chan understands all too well that modern alienation is best illustrated by way of a glut of images—a point reflected on famously by Guy Debord in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. The artist’s work directly reflects, even employs, the intemperance of our times, overloading viewers with more than they can possibly absorb (the speed of the images and the double-sided screen make complete viewing impossible). And yet, for all his limber utilization of contemporary affect, Chan’s work reads allegorically. It is thus weirdly removed from time, even as it reflects upon it. Interestingly, Chan asserts that he splits his efforts between art and political activism (he has long been involved with antiglobalization and antiwar efforts), not because he feels art can’t be political but because he fears it might not be effectively so—a position that is historically (and increasingly) difficult to refute. Still, the tropes Chan borrows from Beckett and the Bible can’t help but point up the current climate and its pathetic resemblance to things that came before, marking ethics (if not politics per se) as central to the work. As Estragon reminds us in Beckett’s first act, one thing really never seems to change: “People are bloody ignorant apes.”

Yet Chan’s chaotic landscape is punctuated by moments of quiet, reminding us that these are appropriated stories that (however wretchedly) document the persistence of faith despite the loss of reassuring objects. At one point, a windstorm carries a vast tumble of litter through the scene, the swirling colors relaying a dose of intense, if ambivalent, pleasure. In another sequence, the tree, sans bodies, is so heavily hung with empty sneakers that while one recognizes the contemporary referent, it’s impossible not to think of other images of piled shoes. But above all, Chan’s digitized skies reflect such poignant tensions: An incongruously delicate field of color that could be a sunset (or a sunrise) on one side of the screen contrasts an apocalyptic black haze that virtually smothers the heavens on the other.

Johanna Burton