Try not to feel judged as the nine Supreme Court justices knowingly smile down at you at the entrance to the Renaissance Society’s latest exhibit, “My Laws are My Whores,” by School of the Art Institute-trained artist Paul Chan. As kind as their faces are, the great height at which the charcoal sketches are placed raises them to an imposing angle, and the physical distance suggests that these figures, for all their power, are out of touch with the earthly matters that lie in wait around the corner.
Throughout the rest of the exhibit, sex and violence are placed in an innovative juxtaposition that is heavily based in technology. An unfocused projector alternates silhouettes of human figures in various states of sexual activity, all shaking and vibrating at some fundamental orgasmic frequency, with stark rectangular shadows. Chan describes this project as depicting the various rooms of the Marquis de Sade’s chateau: one sees all his perverse permutations writhing in absolute pleasure next to paintings and windows that provide a stark, static contrast.
The connection between the Marquis and the Supreme Court justices elucidates the relationship between sex and law, Chan’s focus in the exhibition. The Marquis de Sade spent one-third of his adult life in prison, during which he created some of his most notorious works. “He was haunted by the law of the land,” says Chan, “which he escaped through writing and creating his own law, his own system of absolute pleasure and freedom.” In many ways, Chan’s work is a Foucauldian exploration of the power relations and systems that inform our lives. If sex can be thought of as a system, what does it mean when the government imposes its own system on our sexual relations? The exhibit is not about “doing it,” Chan explains. “It’s about sex as an identity, as a force, as a spirit, as a politics.”
While Chan has been called a political artist, he shies away from the term “activist,” despite his work in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, a group that strives to aid Iraqi civilians suffering the disastrous effects of war. Chan owes much of his political awakening to Voices: “They had a way they dealt with people that didn’t feel like politics, but was, in fact, politics.” Chan feels that there is a strong tendency in activist groups to forget about the personal aspect of their efforts and begin to work for “a constituency” or “money” rather than building relationships with real people.
In his exploration of sex, however, Chan has sought to remove people from the equation. His nine oversized “font maps” use language, rather than bodies, to represent sexual longing. Each diagram matches lower- and upper-case letters, numbers, and punctuation to words inspired by a sexual personality, which is also represented by a pair of shoes that props up the frame. One font map, distinguished by its medical categorizations of sexuality, is titled, “Oh, Dr. Ebing.” The font “Oh, Romans” translates every word into a pornographic sentence of biblical proportions: “Chicago Weekly” becomes “The anus knows, and not delicious, being in death, ye the shaft. O, O! In soul so old dwells.” Both fonts, and others, are available for free download from the Renaissance Society’s website.
Chan has used these fonts to re-subtitle an episode of Law and Order in his most literal fusion of legality and sexuality. The work calls into question the sexual undertones law takes on when performed by celebrities, and creates a new characterization of the more violent scenes that border on police brutality. It is not without a sense of humor. Requests for appeals turn into licentious solicitations, and criminals and lawyers alike become sexual deviants. “For us, I will fuck,” says Sam Waterson. “For virtue.” Looking into the Samsung flat-screen, one sees the world inverted: instead of sexual impulses being reorganized by a code of law here, the law is reorganized by a sexual order. Chan avoids characterizing either as ideal. Instead, the juxtaposition of these two seemingly separate systems challenges the viewer to recognize the ways they influence each other, society at large, and the individual.
The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Cobb Hall, Room 418. Through April 12. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. renaissancesociety.org