paths of victory: PAUL CHAN

The whole article by Holland Carter in the New York Times is well worth reading and there are images of the work, too:

The performances, by the Classical Theater of Harlem, took place outdoors in parts of the city particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and slow to recover. In the Gentilly section, a gutted, storm-ruined house was used as a set. In the Lower Ninth Ward, where one of the largest black neighborhoods in a mostly black city was all but erased by roof-high water surging through a levee, the intersection of two once-busy streets was the stage.

The streets are empty now, lined with bare lots. A few trees and houses stand far off. Reclamation work by returning homeowners and volunteers is under way. But some residents live in cramped trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, here widely despised for its inefficiency. Under the circumstances, Beckett’s words sounded less like an existentialist cri de coeur than like a terse topographic description.

The “Godot” performances were not isolated theatrical events. They were part of a larger project conceived by the New York artist Paul Chan, 34, who is well known to the international art world for his video animations of paradises embattled and lost, and to law enforcement officials for his activist politics.

A board propped against a ruined church carries a hand-painted text: “Can these bones live? Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and ye shall live.” The words, evoking an apocalyptic future, are from Ezekiel.

Sometime in October, new words began to appear. Printed on small cardboard signs, they consisted of the same three phrases: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” — an exact quotation of Beckett’s scene-setting for “Godot.”

The signs were designed by Mr. Chan and posted all over the city, in a distribution pattern that had a rhythm of surprise. Drive through a “good” neighborhood or a “bad” neighborhood and you’d spot one. At a traffic light, another one. On the boarded window of an abandoned shopping mall, another.

After a while the signs came to feel like a shared secret, or some bounteous but anonymous civic gift, the way Keith Haring’s subway paintings felt in New York in the early 1980s. They added up to a visual network, art as a connective tissue for a torn-apart town.

In 2004 he was arrested after taking part in a demonstration at the Republican National Convention in New York. But, as is often the case, his political activity was twofold: in the street and in the studio, where as part of a collective called Friends of William Blake he designed a free New York map for protesters, pinpointing convention events, delegates’ hotels and public toilets.

More recently he has created gorgeous, shadowlike film projections of an everyday world in gravitational crisis — one was in the last Whitney Biennial — with bodies pulled down and objects floating away. At the same time he finished a filmed interview, broken by intervals of abstract color and light, with the civil liberties lawyer Lynne Stewart, who was convicted of passing information from an imprisoned client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, to terrorists.

Since the only promotion had been the stealth advertising of Mr. Chan’s cryptic signs, there was no guarantee of an audience. But The Times-Picayune gave the event significant coverage, and thousands of people turned up for the performances over two November weekends. (A fifth was added to meet the demand.) At each, a gumbo dinner was served and the audience was brought into the seating area by second-line jazz bands.

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