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LIGHT TOUCH
by Ben Street
 
"Paul Chan: The 7 Lights," May 15-July 1, 2007, at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA

New York artist Paul Chan (b. 1973) made an impact in the 2006 Whitney Biennial with 1st Light (2005), a 14-minute-long digital projection that filled a closed and darkened room with silhouettes of a ghostly urban landscape, lit in melodramatic greens and violets and filled with shapes -- some of them human -- swirling through space like an avant-garde version of the hurricane that swept Dorothy into another world in The Wizard of Oz. The general apocalyptic tone of the work was amplified by its resonance with the events of 9/11, which had elevated the grainy image of people hurtling through space to levels of almost unbearable tragedy.

Chanís 1st Light is part of a series of seven projections that correspond to what the artist calls a "hallucination" of the Biblical seven days of creation. This spring, Londonís Serpentine Gallery displayed "The 7 Lights" together as a group, the first time the series has been shown together. The Christian analogy is apt -- although itís the end of the world, not the beginning, that is insistently if delicately hinted at in Chanís epic, sometimes fantastical animations.

The exhibition actually begins with a separate work, Untitled (After St. Caravaggio) (2003-06), a 90-second projection done in a rough, homemade video-game style that is akin to the artistís My Birds. . .† Trash. . .† the Future (2004), exhibited in New York at Greene Naftali Gallery in 2004 [see "Both Sides Now," Nov. 10, 2004]. In Untitled (After St. Caravaggio), Chan literally deconstructs the Baroque painterís famous 1601 Still Life with Basket of Fruit, a well-known gem of Counter-Reformation realism. We watch as the components of the basket gradually float upwards and out of the picture, leaving the basket empty on its trompe líoeil shelf.

For Chan, Untitled (After St. Caravaggio) is a "prelude" to The 7 Lights, a work that led him to discard those elements of animation that he didnít really need. The Caravaggio still life was the "stillest thing I could find," Chan says, noting that he "wanted to move it, break it, basically" in order to test and refine his art-making method. Though an "impoverished reality," animation still contains an "embarrassment of riches," and Chan decided to dispense with color, shape and lines in favor of a visual vocabulary of shadows.

"It was through making this Caravaggio piece that I realized that it wasnít impoverished enough," he tells Hans-Ulrich Obrist in an interview, "and so I had to go to the floor, and I had to not draw and animate with color. And that was the beginning."

At the Serpentine, the second gallery displays 1st Light and 2nd Light projected onto the squared stone floor. In the opening minutes, each projection is a plain oblong of color, which gradually fades from blue to green to red, like a chameleon Carl Andre. Slowly, magisterially, both animations claim the empty space as their screen, orienting the viewer via a silhouetted armature of telephone poles with fluttering wires and a wind-blown tree, respectively. For the duration of each, the background colors continue their steady transformation as silhouetted images -- some tiny and pin-sharp, others huge and unfocused -- flit and spin across the color field like shadows.

Made using cut-out paper silhouettes that are animated onto a computer, Chanís images are at once timeless and poignantly contemporary. Both projections use the motif of the tumbling, descending human form. In 1st Light, the contrast between ascending trucks, bicycles and household items and descending human beings creates a whimsical take on the Christian notion of Rapture, the ascension of the chosen into Heaven at the moment of the Apocalypse. Birds shuffle and shit from one of the wires -- only feces and humans, it seems, are destined to remain earthbound.

2nd Light, meanwhile, has a darker and more furious movement. The whipping branches of the tree are rhymed in the fluttering banners of a largely unseen army marching left to right across the bottom of the projection; adrift humans spin across the sky, and timbers of some off-screen destruction scatter and whirl upwards as the light fades. Itís as though an epic battle were taking place outside the boundaries of the image, an implicit notation of the difference between actual events and their telling.

This implied off-screen component of Chanís projected shadow plays is explored to particularly theatrical effect in 3rd Light, which dominates the semicircular central space of the gallery. A trestle table out of a Last Supper bisects the room, fragmenting the animations projected across it. The dreamy movement of images -- apple cores, supine dogs, cascading spoons -- suggests the aftermath of a party or a ransacked palace. The 4th and 5th Light projections also feature meditative, underwater motion. The former is projected against the wall of the gallery, creating a shimmering reflection on the floor tiles. Guns, bullets and people are in freefall, as if an art-world version of the titles to a James Bond film.

In "The 7 Lights," Chan has made a comprehensive imaginative world with a specific iconography of suburban ephemera, entropic nature and fallen humans. Gravity, the force that ties us to the world, has disappeared, a loss that marks a passage into a spiritual world. Chanís projections suggest something of the weightlessness found in Giovanni Battista Tiepoloís dizzying arrangements of cloud-borne angels and aristocrats, set on the ceilings of palaces.

Tiepoloís paintings are, however, about apotheosis, not apocalypse, and Chanís darker vision clearly reflects a more secular attachment to the concerns of the here and now. In contrast to what he calls the "speculative" approach of "The 7 Lights," Chan also makes single-channel videos with specifically didactic and political intent. These works, with titles like Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, the Law and Poetry (2006) and Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), are on view out in the Serpentineís lobby. "Just because you love silence," Chan tells Obrist, "doesnít mean you have nothing to say."


BEN STREET is a teacher, lecturer and critic living in London.