I rarely think about the weight of air. Having spent my entire life mostly at low elevation, my body is so accustomed to the 14.7 pounds per square inch of pressure the atmosphere exerts near sea level that I don’t even notice it. That changed as soon as I walked into Greene Naftali, where the characters in Paul Chan’s exhibition The Bather’s Dilemma immediately confounded me with their physical and metaphorical contradictions. Heavily laden with references to ancient Greek myths and art history, yet anchored to the present with nods to Gold’s Gym and the opioid crisis, Chan explains in the press release that he aims to address the perennial tension between pleasure and progress. Despite what appears to be a heavily researched and deeply considered thesis, however, his lofty claims act as dead weight in an otherwise elegant expression of human emotion.
Several sculptures occupy the gallery’s first floor space, some in groups and some alone, all moving. These “Bathers,” as Chan calls them, are an evolution of sky dancers — the wiggly, inflated figures often found at car washes and dealerships — but with added layers of cultural referents and feats of engineering. The vaguely humanoid tubes of synthetic fabric each have a fan at their base, pointed upwards, enabling their pneumatic performance. Chan carefully manipulates the fabric’s construction and blown air to produce the illusion of much greater mass, animated with expressions of anxiety, camaraderie, and fatigue. I was surprised by how quickly I imprinted on the Bathers. The emotions I projected onto their movements inundated my body and sense of weight — as though the atmospheric pressure was fluctuating as I walked through the rooms.
One of the first Bathers encountered upon entering the gallery, “La Baigneur 7 (Teenyelemachus),” stands hunched over with its arms weighed down by a sunset-hued towel as its back ripples with convulsions. The effect is that of a body violently expelling some poison or laughing hysterically. Continuing this emotional paradox across the room, the four figures of “Katabasis” flail and tug at each other with delight or anger.
“Los Baigneur [Poordysseus],” isolated in a huge glass and wood vitrine tucked in a back room, affected me the most. The bright yellow figure repeatedly struck its “head” against the glass with the resignation of someone who has been trapped for days and is on the verge of giving up entirely. The finely-tuned cycle of movements — head slams against the glass, slides down in exhausted desperation, straightens up, and repeats — creates a chilling evocation of despair and desperation.
The inclusion of a vitrine, though beautiful, remained unexplained, as did many other elements, despite the lengthy press release. The 1,775-word text chronicles each “Bather” and offer notes about their choreographed movements and explanations of some of the titles, bookended by an underdeveloped statement of how the exhibition intends to engage with present and historical culture. It bears noting that most gallery press releases are around 200–500 words, and many galleries make the mistake of releasing overly-abstract, jargon-heavy texts probably hoping to prove that they and their artists have ivy-league degrees, can quote German philosophers, speak French, etc. As a result, many press releases are utterly useless unless the reader also is an elite member of the art world. For Chan and Greene Naftali to present the “Bathers” in such an inaccessible way is a tragedy. By combining the joyous familiarity of sky dancers with precise engineering, the “Bathers” have the potential to connect with both art world insiders and new audiences, but that entry point is made impenetrable. This isn’t to say that art should never be research-based or marinated in multiple, converging referents. Art should, however, be generous and should not ostracize the viewer or require them to have an advanced humanities degree to “get it.”
Paul Chan: The Bather’s Dilemma continues through October 19 at Green Naftali (508 West 26th Street , Chelsea).