Paul Chan is soft-spoken, but his words are heavy. Carefully chosen, they offer an insight into his reflective process and the weighty implications of his work.
A rising star in the contemporary art scene, the New York artist spoke Nov. 13 at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in conjunction with his new video, digital, and animated installation “Paul Chan: Three Easy Pieces.” But his talk focused largely on another recent project, an outdoors play produced in the fall of 2007 in a devastated part of the United States.
“If we included this lecture as part of the show,” said Chan, “maybe the title would be called ‘three easy pieces and one really, really hard piece.’”
The difficult work was the staging of Samuel Beckett’s classic “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
While visiting the city to give a lecture at Tulane University in 2006, Chan witnessed the destruction firsthand. “The blocks and blocks of nothingness and the palpable sense of waiting,” he said, overwhelmed him.
“I had to make it make sense, and the only thing I could come up with in trying to make sense of what I was looking at was that the landscape of New Orleans … looked absolutely like every production of Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’ that I had ever seen.”
Fond of quoting philosophers, artists, and literary greats, Chan said such catastrophe evoked German-born philosopher Theodor Adorno’s line, “Art is reason that makes reason ridiculous.” Performing the play in New Orleans, where people were still waiting, Chan said, “made perfect sense, it made more sense than sense.”
The work has been produced in a volatile setting before. In 1993, Susan Sontag staged a version of the play in the war-torn city of Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, in a theater lit only by candles. Chan’s production took place outside in two locations, on a street in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit sections of the city, and at an abandoned house in Gentilly, another area severely damaged by the hurricane.
Chan was born in Hong Kong and moved to Omaha, Neb., with his family when he was 8. He studied photography in high school and considered pursuing a career in photojournalism but decided it was too “macho” and opted for art school instead. He received a B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago and an M.F.A. from Bard College.
His interest in video, he said, developed largely as a product of the times, the increasing power and presence of personal computers in the 1990s and their ability to edit video.
“You try to make work that gives you an emphatic expression of what it means to be alive at the time that you are alive; and so, I think you use whatever is necessary and whatever is available to you, and at the time it was computers — and the burgeoning sense of what this glut of information can mean for us.”
Chan’s recent production of “Godot” was his first and what he calls likely his only foray into theater.
A longtime political activist, Chan launched a grassroots effort in New Orleans that included meetings at local churches, visits to schools in the area, and countless potluck dinners with residents to spread the word and solicit feedback and support for the play. It was advice from community residents that largely guided and shaped the project, he said.
One of his first encounters was with Robert Green, a well-known local resident who had lost his mother and young granddaughter in the hurricane. Living in a FEMA trailer where his home once stood in the Lower Ninth Ward, Green, Chan recalled, was not impressed with the artist’s desire to stage a play and, in fact, “sweated” him about his idea. In the end, Chan offered Green his only copy of the play. The next day, Chan got a call from Green, who was excitedly yelling, “Let’s not waste time in idle discourse,” a direct line from Godot, into the phone.
He had read the play, and “he got it, he understood why it made sense to do it, and so from that point on [he] became my neighborhood ambassador,” said Chan.
To produce the play, Chan collaborated with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Creative Time, a public art organization also based in New York.
The play was a success. Turn-away-sized crowds at each performance resulted in another show added to the run.
Staging the production in the outdoor setting allowed for the unexpected, noted Chan, including swooping bats, passing cars, boat horns, police sirens, and an intoxicated man on a bike who repeatedly screamed, “I’m waiting too.” But such serendipity, rather than distract, said Chan, recalled the genius of the Irish playwright.
They were “all the things that weren’t scripted but filled in the silence of the play, and I think that was the brilliance of Beckett. That in a way, he gave us enough space to fill in the silences of Godot.”
The notion of artistic room figures into Chan’s other work. The Carpenter Center installation, “Paul Chan: Three Easy Pieces,” deals in part in shadow, what Chan calls the “negative imprint of things.”
His work “5th Light,” one of a seven-part series, projects shadowy images on the floor that appear to both float upwards and fall to the ground. Guns and bags glide through the air and occasionally break apart, and the forms of miniature people drift by.
“There are some things that we simply can’t look at directly. … I use shadows then as way of connecting to that sense of what it means to not look at something directly but [to] feel it, too,” he said.
Helen Molesworth, the Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at the Harvard University Art Museum, said she chose the three works in the exhibit as a way to chronicle the arc of Chan’s relatively short but influential career. In addition, the curator said, the selections highlight his use of various mediums and offer the viewer a spectrum of emotions, from “empathy to utter distance.”
The second work, “Baghdad in No Particular Order,” a documentary-style video, features the daily lives of adults and children living in Iraq. The piece was filmed during a December 2002 visit Chan made to the country.
His third work, an animated digital video projection “Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization — after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier,” draws directly from outsider American artist Darger and French philosopher Fourier and encompasses a vision of a world with figures violent, cheerfully promiscuous, and at times seemingly carefree.
For many, the work serves as both a vision of paradise and a mirror of the violence in today’s war on terror and the world after 9/11.
On Thursday, Chan was again reflective describing the final moments of the “Godot” production in the Lower Ninth Ward, where, after the applause, the small cast turned and disappeared into the darkness at the end of the street.
“We just stared at them walking into the dark. It was one of the most eerie moments I have ever felt on a project. … No one said a word,” said Chan. “It reminds me of a line from Milton, who said, ‘No light, but rather darkness visible,’ and that’s what it felt like doing this project, that’s it’s not light, but darkness made visible.”