What is a word? What is a thing? What is knowledge? Who am I? How to live? Is there light without shadow? Reason without cunning? What is art? What big questions those are—questions that motivate philosophy, religion, and society; direct and immediate questions like those children ask; questions that suddenly come to mind while driving, taking a shower, or in those tenuous moments when daily life seems absurd, habits bizarre, and certainty suspect. And they are questions that leave no one unmoved, that release a torrent of churning ideas and associations, and drag thoughts along in the maelstrom.
We are similarly struck by the works of Paul Chan, for they take a simple and immediate tack but to ports of great complexity. They meander through the crucial themes of history, philosophy, and literature, through great and elusive themes that suddenly come very close and seem self-evident in Chan’s treatment of word and image. His digitally animated works, installations, drawings, and sculptures appear clear and simple at first sight: luminous colors, familiar materials, clear structures, patent contrasts. The works have the lure of sirens and arrest our attention. And when we give them time, they reveal the ambivalence and abyss that loom behind their beauty. The eloquent titles of the works read like sibylline prophecies, with molting ambiguities that ironically undercut appearances.
Paul Chan is a superb storyteller, a man of twists and turns. In the exhibition at Schaulager, the works are arranged to give each of them a singular voice while, at the same time, revealing their part in the flow of the larger narrative. The tension sustained throughout the entire exhibition is instantly felt in the Arguments, that connect the rooms like a loosely woven fabric or like the thread of Ariadne that provides orientation in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. An Odyssey?
One can get lost in the mesh of Chan’s works; they pose riddles and leave clues that lead into impenetrable thickets. The works speak a language that is not immediately comprehensible; many things are alien, others familiar. Some of Chan’s references immediately ring a bell; other sources require further study. The quotations and ideas, the historical relations and literary foundations are rooted equally in our culture and our everyday life. Allusion and reference in the work of Paul Chan are deprived of their origins and consumed by a new order, only to crop up again as familiar voices, like an echo, in the alienation that informs the works in this oeuvre.
The exhibition is conceived in terms of axes: heaven and earth, the here and the hereafter, the dream of an alternative world and the reality of ours. On the ground floor, visitors encounter and explore the byways of positive and negative utopias; on the floor below they are confronted with relentlessly raw scenarios of reality.
But don’t worry, it’s only art. And how can anybody be afraid of art?