Lesson: Paul Chan: "1st Light" and "5th Light"

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, Poetry, Philosophy, Music, Global Studies, Media Studies and English
  • "5th -Light-," 2007."5th -Light-," 2007.


Written by Detroit poet, Angela Jones.
Paul Chan’s exhibition The 7 Lights, investigates many different ideas, some of which seem to be opposed forces like utopia and apocalypse, sacred and profane, light and shadow, and presence and absence. This lesson examines and reflects on the 1st Light and the 5th Light and investigates factors in opposition with each other through an exercise in dialectics. This lesson will also help students define ideas about apocalypse, culminating in writing their own short story.


  • Develop critical thinking and visual literacy skills through an investigation Paul Chan’s 1st Light and 5th Light
  • Demonstrate understanding of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis
  • Explore narratives that deal with apocalyptic elements


Apocalyptic – referring to the belief that the end of the world as we know it is approaching, usually through a sudden, cataclysmic transformation. Comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning “the lifting of a veil,” or a revelation. Also the name given to a specific genre of prophetic literature, of which the book of Revelation is best known. Western apocalyptic traditions tend to be dualistic, in that they view this end as the final outcome of an ongoing battle between good and evil forces, usually represented by God and Satan.
Dialectic – the Hegelian process of change in which a concept or its realization passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite: development through the stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in accordance with the laws of dialectical materialism.
Thesis – See discussion below
Antithesis – See discussion below
Synthesis – See discussion below


Paul Chan images in the Digital Archives

Lesson Strategy

Have students take notes while watching the 1st Light and the 5th Light. They can list objects they see, note how color and perspective shifts, or just write free associations they have to the artwork. The duration of each projection is fourteen minutes.

Look at 5th Light, 2007. Digital video projection 14 min.
List the images that you see. Chan wants the viewer to experience his artwork in relationship to the body; the viewer can stand any place around the projection to experience the work.
Chan’s work starts at dawn and end at dusk.

  • How are the images projected in the space? How would you describe its shape? Is there a reflection? What is the difference between the reflection and the primary projection?
  • What images are present in this artwork? What happens to the images in this projection?
  • What significance do these images have in our current existence?
  • How do images travel through the space?
  • What connotation does the passage of time have to the idea of work and creation?
  • How does it relate to the idea of cycles, such as renewal, birth and death?
  • How does a day begin and end? Is this a metaphor for a larger concept?

Look at 1st Light, 2005. Digital video projection 14 min.
List the images that you see. In Chan’s work objects rarely stand for what they are.

  • What do you think the telephone pole might stand for?
  • What rises and falls in this work?
  • What happens to some of the objects as they rise?
  • What meaning is there to the disintegration of these objects?
  • What technologies or tech objects do we see in the work?
  • Why do you think the artist is interested in these technologies?
  • How does the bodies falling or ascending relate to the work?
  • What does this levitation in space suggest to you?
  • What does descending suggest?
  • What does the man falling to the ground remind you of?
  • Where have we seen this image before?
  • What word or words would you use to describe the landscape?
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end to the artwork or does it just continue as a cycle?

In all Chan’s work, objects and people seem to share the same fate: they dissolve and disappear.

  • What do you think the meaning of this disappearance is?
  • Could the repetition of these constant images of violence be a cure for our fears?
  • What type of significance is there to the fact that Lights has a strike through it in the title of the exhibition?

Chan is interested in reversing meaning. The titles are meant to read in reverse, and the work is about light and shadows. The strike through of the light also reverses the meaning.

  • Does the meaning of the word light change when there is a strike through?
  • Does it become its opposite?
  • How might light and shadow be related?

In each projection there is a sense of a world on the edge, just after a major disaster. As George Baker writes in his essay about The 7 Lights, “These winds – of change or of desolation, it’s hard to tell – have long been central to the figure of apocalyptic imagination in our culture.” (Page 4)

  • Is there a sense of wind in Chan’s projections? What other movement is there?
  • What does apocalypse mean? What do you associate with the apocalypse?
  • What might Baker mean by the idea of apocalyptic imagination?
  • What, if anything, in Chan’s artwork relates to the apocalypse?

Further Discussion in the Classroom
Engage students in a brief explanation dialectics, visually illustrating this philosophy on the board using the analogy of shadow. Facilitator may open with these sample questions:

  • How do we come to a new idea?
  • What must occur for change to happen?
  • How does conflict resolution work?

On the board:
Thesis (a thing or idea) =source of light
Antithesis (its opposite) =mass, or that which does not give off light
Synthesis (their unification) =shadow

Provide another, more contemporary example:
Thesis = isolation
Antithesis = community
Synthesis = Facebook

You may provide a thesis or two, such as Silence or Destruction, and allow for students to suggest their own antithesis and synthesis, or what the facilitator will refer to as the “Shadow”. Facilitator will then lead a discussion concerning the opposing forces that might be found within Chan’s 7 Lights.

Activity: Stories of Apocalypse
Define the word apocalyptic for students. Discuss its meaning and its origin. Review two stories of different apocalyptic visions. They can be movies, novels, and/or religious texts. Investigate these stories and discuss similarities and differences between these stories and Paul Chan’s projections.

Have students, using the 1st Light or 5th Light as sources of inspiration; write a short story that investigates the theme of apocalypse.

Additional Resources

Frontline: Apocalypse, the series on PBS
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse V
Movies: The Matrix, Apocalypse Now.

Keywords: death, desire, poetry, Politics, war