AMSTERDAM.- Stedelijk Museum presents Paul Chan - Lights & Drawings, on view through June 10, 2007. Light and shadow are the literal and figurative focus of this exhibition by the American artist and activist Paul Chan (1973, Hong Kong). His projections, together with charcoal drawings, collages and digital studies are presented in six rooms. The works all revolve around the digital animation series The 7 Lights which Chan has been working on since 2005 and which will ultimately consist of seven pieces. This exhibition in Stedelijk Museum CS, Chan’s first major museum presentation in Europe, presents all the Lights Chan has completed so far.
The Lights series is described by some as a commentary on a world on the edge of disintegration. In the words of the artist, the series is about ‘light and light that has been extinguished’. In the title, although the word light is literally crossed out, the horizontal line can also be read as a ray of light, and symbolizes the tension between light and dark which is the backdrop of Chan’s melancholy, sometimes sinister, animations.
With The 7 Lights Chan intended to make a group of works that deliver a physical experience. With one exception, the Lights are projected from the ceiling onto the floor, or partly on the floor and wall. The works are structured as a cycle of day and night, sunrise to sunset. They are mostly triangular or trapezoid in shape, and reminiscent of light pouring through a window - a window opening onto a faraway outside world, where only the shadows of events are visible.
In The 7 Lights a gamut of contradictions collides: upward and downward movements, inside-outside, slow-fast, light-dark, chaos-order, utopia and apocalypse, the sacred and the profane. In the cycle, Chan makes extensive reference to Christianity and religion in general. The structure of The 7 Lights can be seen as a reversal of the Rapture Theory. The symbols of consumerism ascend into heaven, but human beings literally fall from grace. With this, Chan is referring to current issues facing the world: the dichotomy between capitalism and idealism.
Chan is an activist as well as an artist. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recently called him ‘one of the main protagonists of a new political art movement in the USA’. Among other things, Chan was co-founder of the New York chapter of Indymedia, an independent media network. Chan draws a distinct line between his life as an activist and an artist. He believes that art and politics are different categories that function in different ways. His ‘other life’ is expressed in his collage-like video documentaries, an impressive example of which is Baghdad In No Particular Order (2003) in which he paints a picture of life in everyday Baghdad just before the American invasion. Chan stayed there at the invitation of human rights organization Voices in the Wilderness, which has been focusing its non-violent opposition to US economic sanctions against Iraq since 1996. Chan was part of a special Peace Team that smuggled food and medication into the country.
On Chan’s website www.nationalphilistine.com, under the section ‘Free Baghdad’ snapshots, video clips and diary entries can be found. Visitors can also download Free MP3 files, while Chan can also be heard reading 16-hours’-worth of quotations from writers, artists and filmmakers. The citations are categorized under headings like ‘works haunted by God’ and ‘works activists should listen to’. Chan also offers free downloads of fonts he has designed, where each letter is an icon, so that a text is immediately injected with a visible political or artistic message.
Paul Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1973 and grew up in Nebraska. He graduated with an MFA in Film, Video and New Media from Bard College in 2002, having earned his BFA in Video Digital Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. Chan’s teaching activities included lecturing at the Graduate School of Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania and the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. Chan lives and works in New York. His digital animations were previously exhibited at the Whitney Biennale 2006 in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and Para/site Art Space in Hong Kong. Chan is scheduled to hold a solo exhibition in the summer of 2007 at the Serpentine Gallery in London, followed by solo presentations in 2008 at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum in New York.