Aesthetic Thursdays: Paul Chan at the Whitney Museum

1st Light
Paul Chan, 1st Light, 2005. Digital video projection. 14 minutes, edition of 5. Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York. Photo: Jean
At the Whitney Museum in New York City, there is currently, as of this post, a video installation made in 2005 by the American artist, Paul Chan.

Upon walking into an open room in the museum's "Singular Visions" collection on the fifth floor, devoted to single pieces of individual artist's art, there on the floor, like a cut into another reality, emanates Chan's video imagery.
Part of the museum floor appears to be a trapezoidal space with changing colors of yellow and blue hues. If one stands and peers into the space, they'll notice objects drifting upwards into an eerie sky. It seems like a reverse Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. Instead of falling down, the objects, mostly common appliances, for example, an iPod, fall up.

Human figures also appear flitting across the space. It's as if the perspective is a window into a surreal world. Birds fly across the sky. All flows upwards or across, except for the fate of the people who plummet downward, their shapes diminishing in size as they fall.

The placard on the wall explains the artist's intention in the piece is to suggest a "reverse rapture." Instead of the saved rising up to God in heaven at the Second Coming, people fall downwards to a terrifying unknown, reminiscent of the victims who jumped from the enflamed buildings of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

The piece challenges the notion that suffering leads to salvation. Watching the installation, there is an immediate sense of dread in witnessing the fate of other human's plunge into an unknown. At the same time, since the installation is projected onto the floor, the spectators look down onto human misery. The vantage point of the viewer suggests a removal from the pain of others.

The fundamentalist belief in the rapture purports there will be those who are saved and those who are damned at the Second Coming of Christ. Chan seems to counter this view by reversing the role and removing the damned/blessed dichotomy. Chan's rapture is one of those who stand and view those who suffer (a false sense of superiority) and the unsettling nature of human suffering itself.

Religion promises an afterlife without suffering. But what to do in the face of an image of death as a plummet into the unknown? The rising objects seem to be treated with salvific honor while the fate of other humans is cast into the oblivion.

What the piece does is put under erasure a saving first light. Salvation can not be a light when confronted with the actual face of suffering itself. The opposite of light is not dark, nor is it anything in between.
On view at the Whitney now.

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