March 3, 2009

Chan brings together Scalia, de Sade in whores

In his new exhibit at the Renaissance Society, My laws are my whores, artist Paul Chan fuses sexual discourse and legal politics in ways that, though at times stilted, are ultimately very powerful and affecting. His artwork breaks down the distinctions between politics and aesthetics with remarkable economy and alacrity.

The entire exhibit is divided into five separate but interrelated parts. As you walk in, be sure to tilt your neck back or you’ll miss the first segment of the exhibit: charcoal portraits of all nine Supreme Court justices hanging high from the rafters. On the gallery’s right-hand side is a small keyboard, but with each key reshaped to look like a tombstone.

Moving across the gallery, the viewer encounters two installations directly parallel to one another. One of the installations consists of nine large, text-based ink drawings of individuals from the Marquis de Sade’s writings. Directly across is a digital projection of human silhouettes in various sexual positions. Parallel to the tombstone keyboard, there is a television lying on the floor playing a looped episode of Law and Order. The audio is taken out and replaced with subtitles that Chan wrote.

The organization of the exhibition as a whole is extremely muddled and perplexing. The exhibit doesn’t seem like a coherent work segmented into five inter-dependent parts, but like five different works that treated similar subjects. Moreover, as far as the actual content of the exhibit goes, I felt that parts of it (in particular, the Law and Order and tombstone keyboard segments) could have been better developed to critique modern methods of acquiring sexual knowledge and engaging in sexual discussions.

In the last decade or so, the Internet and television have given people the ability to view and discuss almost any sexual practice, a fact that should have gotten more attention in this exhibit. Despite its shortcomings, My laws are my whores presents a very apt combination of a political critique, represented by the elevated and oddly disturbing portraits of our Supreme Court Justices, and a critique of the Enlightenment influence on our concepts of sexuality.