April 17, 2008

The Shadows Cast Upon the Wall: Paul Chan's Luminous Narrative at the New Museum

When I walked by St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on my way to the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery, I had little idea that I'd soon find a relationship between the aged church with the exhibit I would soon see in the museum. Yet, while contemplating the secular and worldly engagement of Paul Chan's The 7 Lights, with its digital projections of falling objects in the light and darkness, I fell into a state of meditation that, while not worship, was like a religious pilgrimage in search of the truth. I could have been in a church, I thought, or at least the kind Le Corbusier would have designed.

Chan began the project of these digital projected loops of Lights, deconstructed with this titular strikethrough, in 2005, and the assembly of seven of them here, placed well on the smooth floors and finished walls of the third floor of the museum, creates an effective and moving exhibit. Framed as the lights and camera obscura images of the shadows cast through a window, the fourteen-minute loops begin with the warm colors of the break of day, proceed through the bright light of the afternoon, and end with the blue-purples of the evening. And begin again, without a seam. As the day unfolds, objects appear and fall or float or ascend. In 1st Light, it's a telephone poll, then a flock of birds, and at some point a falling body, and then more falling bodies. It's horrifically beautiful (or beautifully horrific).

With the 3rd Light, a long table adds an additional surface for the casting shadows, and the table becomes the Last Supper. One sequence in the beamed light in this iteration seems more uncannily like natural daylight than the light in the other projections, and the preternatural white glow strikes both awe and respect, even as the falling objects include chairs, forks, spoons, and dogs. Birds fly by as bodies still fall. The nightmare continues. The only break is some peace at the falling of a new day.

As individuals sometimes walked in front of the projectors, usually by accident or just to shift their points of view, they seemed to not be intrusions but appropriate additions to the passing objects.

The exhibit includes Chan's drawings, collages of paper and charcoal on Styrofoam, and a special drawing of the Marquis de Sade installed in an alcove. The Sade drawing, presented in the genre of costume design, is humorous on the surface, but there's a social message embedded in it, one with a point, so to speak. I can't say more, or I'll ruin it.

It was good to visit the New Museum again after all the hub-bub of the opening exhibit, Unmonumental, and see how well Chan's moving images work in there. I didn't feel the same about the configuration of Tomma Abts paintings on another floor, by the way, - they're too low on the wall, I think, and some a little crooked. Intriguing, well-crafted paintings, yes, but they're lost in space.

For more on the Chan exhibit, see the illuminating online exhibit of Paul Chan's The 7 Lights at the New Museum's website.

Image: First floor, New Museum of Contemporary Art. Walking Off the Big Apple. April 16, 2008.

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