23 Feb 2021
Every single star is historical and light years away from Earth. While studying the planetary system, astronomers have discovered star constellations. By giving them names and creating maps, they have brought the stars closer to Earth. The researchers’ individual motivation for dealing with the celestial phenomena is well documented. It is often linked to a fundamental human need that Paul Chan expressed in 2005: "Who has not looked up at the sky, in desperation, for a sign, for something."
Chan referred to books depicting star maps, when Ralph Rugoff invited him, together with 70 further artists from forty nations, to reflect on the topic of "Monuments for the USA" and on what kind of monuments the “people of the United States” need and deserve at that particular period in history - shortly after the re-election of George W. Busch Jr. as President of the United Stated of America. Rugoff observed a mania to erect monuments within the United States which had been going on for the last two decades. He interpreted this obsession as a warning signal and bad omen regarding American democracy. According to Rugoff this materialized externalization of cultural memory, which reached a trivial climax in the construction of the “National World War II Memorial” in Washington D.C. as an architectural theme park in May 2004, can be interpreted as a symptom of the fatal attempt of trying to hide the inner collapse by escaping into a glorious past, while continuously distancing oneself from the present: With a tendency to forget and to unlearn how to negotiate the foundations of a common understanding of values through debates, processes and rituals.
Chan designed the “Constellation Series”, a series of ten maps, on a computer by using the vector-based graphics and drawing program Freehand, he titled the maps, printed them as inkjet prints and wrote a statement.
In contrast to convention, Chan's maps are not round, their shape is not related to a circle or the ideal of a sphere. The contours are warped irregularly, they relate to the mapping of the sky by the International Astronomic Union (IAU) and vaguely resemble the shape measured for the North American continent. The maps are black or colored in red, blue, brown and orange tones, determined by the color palette of a drawing program that no longer exists. Instead of straight lines, vectorial, curvy lines connect the notations of the individual stars on the surface. They relate to a virtual space and to a model of three-dimensionality. The structures are suggestions of star constellations that relate to ten classical constellations reaching back to mythology such at the Centaur and Great Bear. The genealogy of these new constellations is mentioned in the title’s addition "former". They are dedicated to democratic principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of press and apply to an “America to come”. Chan formulated the arguments for this approach in a statement: “America will not survive as a democratic experiment because Earth will not survive as a planet beyond the year 2050. But does this mean America must die on Earth? Public memory of the traditions and ideas that shaped America need not to be bound by the language of terrestrial monumentality, or even gravity."
While reacting to the project call in 2014, Paul Chan primarily addressed the “people of America” with his “Constellation Series”. In addition to the population of “white America”, this includes a substantial number of people who belong to a population which, due to post-colonial contexts, diversity and migration, create the entirety of the people living in the United States and form a microcosm within the global society. Throughout the history of America their contribution, as well as that of their ancestors, is only marginally depicted in the official representation of the USA – such as in buildings and monuments, up to “Black Lives Matter” and the recent election of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. It is to these “people” that Chan, who was born in Hong Kong in 1973 and lives and works in New York, appealed to in 2005:
“Let us rename the stars and constellations to remember the things we have lost and the things we have yet to gain. We Americans will not survive beyond this mortal coil; this much is true. But America should live on, as a myth, and a promise, to be fulfilled at a later date, on another planet perhaps.”
Rugoff has summarized the spectrum of critical, subversive and even humorous suggestions in a publication resembling a "mail order catalog" for government agencies, municipal organizations and art institutions. Since then, Paul Chan has been very active: as the publisher of Badlands Unlimited, he published documents, texts and reflections, held discussions and initiated projects such as a production of “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. For two years he worked on his first major monographic exhibition at the Schaulager which opened in 2014. His “NEW NEW TESTAMENT” was published simultaneously. For the first time the complete 10-piece work “The Constellation Series” is shown at the Kunstmuseum Basel Gegenwart. Each individual sheet offers a kind invitation to take a moment while gazing at the stars and experiencing a distinct state of consciousness, to reflect on our own position and behavior regarding the principles of democracy as well as how this position could be in the future.
The energy that derives from the fascination, the determination and perseverance of committing oneself to the future, is fundamental. It remains a challenge, an experiment leading to participants and non-participants – not winners and looser.
Untitled (for an America to come)
America will not survive as a democratic experiment because Earth will not survive as a planet beyond the year 2050. But does this mean America must die on Earth? Public memory of the traditions and ideas that shaped America need not to be bound by the language of terrestrial monumentality, or even gravity.
Freedom of speech is more magical than Orion´s belt. The myth of distributive justice holds more wonder than Ursa Major. Let´s memoralize those things that have come to pass or will never be - not here, but up there. And there.
Let us rename the stars and constellations to remember the things we have lost and the things we have yet to gain. We Americans will not survive beyond this mortal coil; this much is true. But America should live on, as a myth, and a promise, to be fulfilled at a later date, on another planet perhaps.
NASA, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, can lead the charge in renaming the order of our stars and galaxies.
Can you image, beyond our sad and pale horizon, looking up one night and recognizing within a cluster of starts the shape of a dancing jellyfish holding a spoon, and knowing that this is what democracy looks like.
Who has not looked up at the sky, in desperation, for a sign, for something.
Source: Monuments for the USA, ed. by Ralph Rugoff, Ausst. Cat. Monuments for the USA, CCA Wattis Institute at the Logan Galleries of the CCA San Francisco Campus, 7. April – 14. May 2005, San Francisco: California College of the Arts, 2005, S. 38-41.
Stefanie Manthey, art historian, art mediator and free-lance author