The 5th Light, from The 7 Lights by Paul Chan

Paul Chan

The 5th Light, from The 7 Lights, 2007, Digital video projection, 14 mins, Installed at the New Museum in 2008, © Paul Chan, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

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Love or Lawlessness

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

1 John 3 characterizes sin as lawlessness. We can find a profound metaphor for such troubling and chaotic disorder in Paul Chan’s (b.1973) series of video projections called The 7 Lights.

Known for his complex, large-scale video work, Paul Chan regularly blurs the line between art and activism. In the course of his ongoing experiments with video art, he took up the challenge of presenting shadows (hence his title, implying the pictorial representation of light’s negation).

Inspired by observing the play of light on the floor of his apartment, Chan created a set of digital animations depicting an inversion of the seven days of creation, a kind of ‘un-creation’ narrative. These videos are projected on the gallery floor. As the artificial daylight of these videos rises and changes over time, ominous shadows appear and move across the picture plane.

The work opens with familiar shadows of telephone poles, streetlights, trees, or birds—all animations digitally drawn by the artist. As the videos progress, objects begin to float upward slowly and tear apart in mid-air. Many are quite small (eyeglasses, cell phones, or an iPod) and others are much larger (pets, city-dwelling animals, a bicycle, a police car, or a city train).

Suddenly shadows of human bodies drop through the picture plane. Only a few bodies fall at first; mostly one at a time, but sometimes in pairs or groups. They descend—presumably to their deaths—with a speed and force that recalls the haunting news footage of those leaping from the burning towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The initially quaint, absurd scenes are thus rendered chaotic disasters. Chan’s windowpanes continue to fill until objects overcrowd the view and all is shadow. Beginning with the warm hues of dawn and closing with cooler night-time blues and greys, each day unfolds in 14-minute sequences that loop endlessly.

The 5th Light (shown here) stands out for its startling inclusion of assault rifles. Humans have a share in the world’s de-creation in the wars we start, the oppression we inflict, and the inequalities we allow.

Likewise, when 1 John states that ‘no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’ (v.15), it recalls Cain, whose murder of his brother was the first homicide. Chan’s apocalyptic fantasy not only dazzles and disturbs, but in its unveiling of the powers and principalities of this world, it also judges our lawlessness. 



Chan, Paul, and Martha Rosler. 2006. Paul Chan, Martha Rosler: Between Artists. (New York: A.R.T. Press)

Chan, Paul, et al. 2007. Paul Chan: The 7 Lights. (London: Serpentine Gallery)

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