Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I was up at Mass Moca this weekend and checked out a group show of artists reenacting history. Some of it was inevitably didactic but I finally had the chance to see Paul Chan's video, "Happiness," a hypnotic digitally animated take on Outsider artist Henry Darger and Utopian thinker Charles Fourier. The scroll-like horizontal projection depicted scenes of girls (with male appendages) frolicking in some kind of prelapsarian garden before they were visited upon by their tormentors, a battalion of suited men bearing cell phones, batons and other nefarious weapons. The animation was homespun and pixelated, kind of like early Nintendo games. It was beautiful, scatalogical, and disturbing.

Paul Chan is one of the few artists who juggles dual roles as artist and activist. He's worked with the Teamsters, IndyMedia, and was part of Voices of the Wilderness, an anti-war organization that is based in Iraq. On top of that, he’s blown up as a video artist (he’s on the cover of June’s Art Forum). But despite his stated need to separate the roles, Chan creates work that is explicitly political and yet it is work that maintains a rich complexity. Part of what is so nuanced about Chan’s work is his formula: he uses the raw materials of our current political situation to create a fictionalized, bizarrely imagined world. (Another brilliant example of a video artist who does this is Lebanese video artist Walid Raad.) Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz included Chan in his sweeping pronouncements about art in the present age:

“Now, artists are meshing history with lived reality. They're attuned to the sadness, the terror, and the ecstasy of history. They understand that the present is history.”

Years ago, poetry was visual art’s partner-in-crime (think Dadaism, Futurism, etc etc etc and etc), but now hardly a relationship exists between the two as one medium is immersed in the Market while the other has fallen in the dustbins. Yet a relationship, I think, still exists. So I wonder if this mindful awareness towards history and the collective will be a trajectory for contemporary poetry too or has poetry (and I am of course speaking very, very, very generally as I tend to do) already become too trapped within academia's myopia, in that the only history poetry now recognizes is its own literary past?


At 12:54 PM , Blogger jen liu said...

But I think the thing to remember is the great divergence that happened btwn the art and literary worlds, arguably starting in the early 60's. To oversimplify: in the wake of abex and the imagined death of painting, art exploded onto the scene of "real life" with a fury. This set the scene for an art world that could, (again, arguably) assimilate any and every gesture within its ever-expanding economic breast, in both form and content. No similar upheaval happened in poetry, as far as I can tell. In fact I wonder: is "poetry's problem" similar to the neuroses of an adult who has never properly distanced itself from Mom and Dad? Yes, poetry had early 20th C purging, but it seems that any given medium needs a regular cycle of purge to progress, and poetry's progress stopped at about the 1st grade of 20th century avant-garde.

So poetry: that teenager who never drank, smoked pot, got into trouble, but stayed at home and helped Mom do the dishes? In other words, poetry: the Alex. P. Keaton of the arts? Oh, but I'm catching a whiff of cliche about this. But I really can't think of a more interesting reason.


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