My Birds...trash...the future

Hammer Projects: Paul Chan

Paul Chan’s 17-minute digital animation, My Birds…trash… the future (2004), begins with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and encompasses the Bible, Goya, and Blake. Projected on both sides of a long, narrow screen, rendered in eye-popping acid colors (or acid-popping colors), and peopled with a panoply of characters including the late rapper Biggie Smalls and the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the piece is an ambiguous tale of political horror and modern alienation.


Paul Chan was born in 1973 in Hong Kong and currently lives in New York City. He received his BFA in video and digital arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his MFA in film, video, and new media from Bard College. His work was included in the 2004–5 Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, and has been shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His work will be shown at the eighth Biennale d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, France, in fall 2005.


By Johanna Burton 

“Utopian desire and unspeakable violence are not mutually exclusive.” Words delivered by Paul Chan in a recent interview, these could stand as a credo for the artist’s work as a whole and are succinctly embodied in his My Birds...Trash...The Future. A two-channel, seventeen-minute animated video projection, My Birds... improbably pairs not just fantasies of utopia with realities of violence but also Samuel Beckett with the Bible, the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini with the rapper Biggie Smalls, and low-tech contemporary pop-up advertising techniques with arguably outdated traditions of history painting. Presented on a floating, wood-framed, double-sided screen, the piece occupies an aggressively hybrid status, whereby various vernaculars culled from television, the Internet, film, indie comics, and military-training tools coalesce in a bleakly cacophonous human drama at once alien and all too familiar. 

My Birds... comprises a loose adaptation, update, and merger of the sparse stage set from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as layered with the fire-and-brimstone doctrines (and taboos) dictated in the book of Leviticus. One need only refer to the set specifications outlined in the great modernist playwright’s famous “tragicomedy in two acts,” written in 1948, to trip onto clues about Chan’s inspiration for his own ambivalent staging. Act 1, as described by Beckett: A country road. A tree. Evening. And act 2: Next day. Same time. Same place. A similarly timeless, placeless, seemingly hopeless breed of landscape is evoked by Chan, though his own vehemently allegorical site presided over, like Beckett’s, by a gnarled, barren tree is ultimately cluttered by the effects and affects of recognizably historical and contemporary debris. Further, in place of Vladimir, Estragon, Lucky, Pozzo, and the nameless “boy,” Chan populates his own space of perpetual unfolding with, among others, a flock of ominous birds of all varieties, a single swooping bat, some desperate dogs, several type A suicide bombers, and the animated likenesses of two figures infamous for (and here united by) their mysterious, brutal, and untimely deaths: Pasolini and Biggie Smalls.




 My Birds...  Waiting for Godot  Waiting for Godot 

Johanna Burton is an art historian and critic living in New York City. 


Hammer Projects are organized by James Elaine, and are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.