Interview with artist Paul Chan published May 25, 2016 in conjunction with the exhibition Less Than One at the Walker Art Center
Copyright Fionn Meade and Walker Art Center
A common feature within Paul Chan’s three works on view in the exhibition Less Than One is the use of silhouette form to question power dynamics. Void of identifying features or specific characteristics, the animated silhouette within Chan’s restive vision invites and prompts us to project possible narratives onto reduced and impoverished images. Embracing what artist and theorist Hito Steyerl has termed the “poor image” of dubious genealogy within digital culture, Chan’s series The 7 Lights (2005–2007), works with “light and light that has been struck out” to depict a shadow cinema of the sacred and profane within contemporary culture.
The tangible yet pared down outline of daily life gradually loses form in the series, with lampposts, cell phones, animals, circuitry, weapons, and people slowly breaking up into fragments that have no single point of gravity. As in 6th Light, on view, the virtual is seen rising and falling in an animated cycle of dissolution. Score for 7th Light, the final piece of the series, pushes toward total abstraction as a musical score of shadow fragments is laid out and contained within the strictures of the music staff across composition pages, offering near impossible instructions for the as-yet-unmade final projection in the cycle.
It is in Sade for Sade’s sake (2009), however, that Chan deploys his poor cinema of the silhouette to truly epic effect, creating an immersive environment of nearly life-sized animated figures engaged in various encounters of sex and violence. Interspersed with floating rectangular forms that recall redacted imagery or censored sections of explicit texts, the mood of Chan’s work speaks to the American psyche at that time. Here, the artist has added a range of toy guns to what is a highly charged site-specific installation of the work. I recently sat down with Chan to discuss this most recent iteration of Sade for Sade’s sake, on view at the Walker, in the Lower East Side office of Badlands Unlimited, the publishing house Chan founded in 2010, devoted to e-books, paper books, and artist works in digital and print forms.
Fionn Meade: Curating Less Than One I noticed a sub-theme in the works I was selecting: what does it mean to become American, as opposed to being American? Thinking about your work, I immediately thought: Sade for Sade’s sake needs to be shown–right now. It just felt timely. You don’t over-explain your work, but I know that at the time you were making it there was heightened attention to the extralegal situations of US policy around Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and some of the redacted images that were coming out from Abu Ghraib in particular resonate, I think, for a viewer who’s paying attention to these connections. So, I wanted to first just ask you how you got into the whole Sadean project.
Paul Chan: The origins of the Sade project came from my reading and thinking about Henry Darger. I did a projection piece called Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization, after Charles Fourier and Henry Darger (2003), and Sade was a part of that mix. Why was he a part of the mix? Because he was an artist and a thinker who I believe was on the same wavelength as Darger, insofar as they were both interested in the look of infinitude. Darger’s landscapes looked infinite, like a world. But what you realized if you looked a little more closely is that this world was actually composed of a finite set of elements, that he only drew something like 24 kinds of flowers, but he varied them in such a way that his landscapes were completely populated with all different kinds of flowers. It’s a basic idea of theme and variation. But he had a theme. He had, say, four types of trees, and then he varied them to a point where you couldn’t tell what was happening. And Sade, in a very similar spirit, did that in his writing around ideas and acts of sex and violence.
One of the other things that I thought connected them was the spirit of escape. Darger lived a terribly lonely and isolated life in Chicago, tragic in every meaningful sense. The Marquis de Sade also led a different kind of tragic life, but it’s important for me to remember that he wrote his greatest works while imprisoned, right?
The 120 Days of Sodom was written while he was in the Bastille, and the intensity and the feel of infinitude, I think, come from the desire to escape. So, Sade is a part of the mix of that early animation, but I could never make Sade fit, so I took him out and put him in the back of my mind until after The 7 Lights, when I realized, “Oh, this is a thing I should do. I should follow up with that thinking around Sade.” That’s how it came out.
After The 7 Lights, I re-remembered Sade, and thinking about Sodom, and rereading it, I realized that we don’t really think about it this way, but Sodom was a book about war profiteers, that the four men who perpetrated the atrocious, sexual, violent acts of kidnapping people–girls and boys–to bring them to their chateau to do whatever they want with them, they could do that because they were war profiteers within the war of Louis XIV. They profited from the war of Louis XIV. That really struck me, because at the time that we were living, we were going through a war, the Second Gulf War. We were going through the destruction of countries in the Middle East, and we were hearing stories about war profiteering.
Meade: Of your use of the silhouette form, I think of Goya and the Caprichos and other artistic approaches to the grotesquery of the silhouette as a tool for speaking to situations of power and misuse of power. In Sade, the silhouette forms are so artificial. Then the animated jitter brings them to life in a way that is artificial, and yet its artificiality prompts a disturbing effect for viewers. Can you talk about why you chose the silhouette form?
Chan: I’m a terrible drawer [Laughs]. I can’t draw to save my life! And a silhouette makes it much easier. I have less to deal with! [Laugh] Just one line, really, and nothing inside. I think that’s the simplest answer.
A more complicated answer may be that I may not be interested in what it is at all. I may be interested more in its movement. I’ve told this story before, but I’m nearsighted. I’ve been nearsighted since I was, like, 12. But I’m so vain that I refuse to wear glasses, and I’ve learned to live that way because I realized when I was young that I don’t have to see with clarity to know what I’m looking at. I’ve adapted, based on my vanity, so that I can recognize people and things based on their movement. So, I may not be able to tell if that’s you from your face down the street, but I’d like to think that if we hang out just a little bit more, I would know how you’d move, and I would recognize you walking down the street from a block away. That’s how I can tell people in the street since I was 15.
So, to me, movement becomes the essential way in which I see things, and it may be the case that the through line for the work that I’ve done, regardless of the medium, is movement.
I loved drawing the Darger stuff, the Happiness pieces. I loved drawing them all, but what I was more invested in was how they move. And so with Sade, what was important was a particular spirit or style of moving, which I call “petrified unrest.” That jittering is completely artificial, but what’s interesting is that it feels very human to me, insofar as it represents the feeling that I get when I sit in front of a computer [laughs] or when I’m anxious. That movement is the baseline for the whole piece. If you can see it musically, that jittering is the baseline. Nothing stands still; everything is moving. And even if you’re still, you’re jittery.
Meade: The counterpoint, in the musical sense, is the gliding—the geometry of the squares coming from left to right. I immediately think of visual redaction. But was that tension thought of as a musical counterpart?
Chan: That’s very astute. I think it’s true. I didn’t necessary think of it as redaction, but I did think of it as a counterpoint to the movement theme of petrified unrest, as the geometric shapes move qualitatively differently. They’re slow, languid, calming.
Chan: And I needed that, because it was too painful to watch even artificial shadows of human beings in petrified unrest. Over time, as I was making it, I couldn’t bear looking at it. It needed a counterpart. It needed something to lessen the burden.
Meade: Can you talk a bit about the mood when you made the piece? My sense in working with you on this installation is that the mood has to have an update each time you install the piece. The variation includes the space itself.
Chan: Yeah, I think it’s a function of the illusion of it being a shadow; that the pleasure and the challenge of shadows is that they can go anywhere. In fact, the more unorthodox a surface, the more illusionary it looks. That shadow is a sort of story. I showed some of the Lights in Europe in this institution, and because they knew that the projection would be on the floor, they assumed that the floors must look like a screen, so they cleaned the floor and painted it white and glossed it so it was like a projection screen. And it looked terrible. I told them, “It’s not a projection. It’s a shadow, and it looks better as a shadow if it functions like a shadow.” That it falls on whatever it falls on.
Meade: Right. It elongates, shrinks, and expands.
Chan: Right, and I think that’s the spirit in which Sade was made. The spirit of The 7 Lights transfers over to Sade insofar as it needs an unorthodox surface for it to give it the mimetic sense of it being a shadow.
Meade: For the Walker installation, being able to use the former installation walls and pallets and things that call to mind almost a non-space, or a space in between modes, is just so effective, in particular in counterpoint to the kind of mesmeric left-to-right of the geometric movement. Then there are the toy guns. Can you talk about adding the toy guns?
Chan: Sure. When I found out you guys were installing Sade, I thought it was great, and I knew that we were in conversation about an unorthodox projection surface. At the time, news of guns was in the air—who has a right to own them, who does not—and I thought, “If we need an unorthodox projection surface, why not have the surface be guns?” That’s when I put in the request to just buy guns. [Laughs]
Meade: It brings to mind a very particular American conundrum, which is the right to bear arms and the inevitability that every decade guns are more and more an issue in American culture. And in some ways, that extends to how guns are mixed with sex, violence, and celebrity, as well as economic inequality in American society, not to mention questions around what police presence and the consideration of what a “police state” might mean in this country. These things really intermingle in ways that are very powerful. To overlay that on the piece itself in Sade, was in some ways directly responding to this moment.
Chan: I think so. It’s nice to know a work can do that, and I think I’m just taking advantage of how the works are made. Sade needs an unorthodox projection surface. I don’t say what that unorthodox projection surface is, so the opportunity is always there when people install Sade to interject, to intervene in that space, to give it a kind of presence that it may not have had otherwise. I think of that old Chinese adage that the strongest force in the world is water. I think part of the pleasure of the shadow works I’ve made is precisely that they sort of “bend” themselves. There is no ideal situation for how they’re shown. They actually need a less-than-ideal space. The Lights: they need a dirty floor. Sade: you need an uneven surface. It’s almost like a dare. It’s like, “I dare you.” I remember thinking this with Sade: “I dare you to do this. I dare you to project on a brick wall in Venice.” “I dare you to project on the wall that no one uses at Carol Greene’s gallery.” I think it’s pleasurable.
Meade: Do you think that less-than-ideal aesthetic is perhaps also a way of prompting or working through philosophical ideas? That philosophical engagement, or political-philosophical mix of concerns, has to have, in some ways, a less-than-ideal aesthetic to be able to actually have something to it, rather than just be a declaration or a position?
Chan: I love that explanation, and I will use that from now on, because what I’ve used is that I’m an asshole.
Chan: That’s it. We are beholden to our temperament, I suppose. I am. Whether I want it or not, whether I like it or not, my temperament is: I would rather work in less-than-ideal situations. I need it, in fact, for me to think and to feel and to work at the highest level that I think I can. Because at the end of the day, I don’t think I’ve ever been in an ideal situation for anything. And I may not have the temperament to make it, so if that’s the case, I’d rather work with what I’m willing to take. So, there is real pleasure for me in seeing the Lights projected on a dirty, wet floor. There’s real pleasure in me seeing Sade projected on a brick wall, or seeing the wooden slats that you had put in front of it. It’s like, “Oh, that’s right. Yeah, it can survive here.” Yeah, I think of it like a dare. I think of it like those weeds that you see in concrete. Like, it’ll grow anywhere. You know, you don’t have to give it much. It’ll grow anywhere. I like works that are resilient and tough.
Meade: People always ask you about your political engagement and your philosophical promiscuity. You’re a promiscuous reader, and you also have been directly involved in political engagements and actions, though you often talk about these concerns separately. Can you talk about that? I think it’s really interesting, the permissiveness you have to engage with philosophy.
Chan: I guess it’s no more different than whatever else we find pleasure in doing. The history of philosophy, for me, is a history of great comedy and drama. There’s nothing funnier and more tragic than reading men and women who think they can figure it out. Like, you read Augustine, and it’s like, “You really think you’re going to get it all, don’t you?” Or Plato. Spinoza. It’s moving to me to imagine someone out there thought once, and perhaps will think again, that they’re going to figure it out.
I like that. I’m not going to do it, but I’m glad they are. [Laughs] And I like reading about it; to me it’s very pleasurable. Oddly enough, ironically enough, it’s also given me a kind of intellectual and aesthetic and maybe even emotional sustenance to deal with being on Earth, because it’s terrible here! [Laugh] Just the worst! And whatever sustenance we can find to give ourselves just a little bit more endurance and resiliency is necessary. Some people take steroids. Some people take HGH [human growth hormone]. I read Spinoza, and I think it works for me.
Meade: I also think of [Giorigio] Agamben, as somebody who writes about religion and the transition from the 20th to the 21st century with an earnestness and not a kind of dismissiveness, though not necessarily as a believer. Your work has a kind of recurrent liturgical aspect to it. Can you talk about that?
Chan: I think it connects a lot to philosophy. There is no history of philosophy without history of religion. Philosophy is an outgrowth of the history of religious thought in the West. So, you can’t have the one without the other. You may think that we can, but as Agamben shows, we really can’t, historically speaking, at least. He is definitely someone who understands that interrelationship between the history of religion and the history of philosophy and how they entangle each other over time, right up to now.
And I think, you know, like we talked before about war. Our time involves seeing the emergence of a new religiosity in the US that, I think, has surprised everyone. Who knew in the 21st century we’d have to think about that again?
I didn’t. And who would’ve thought that religion would continue to be such a mobilizing force, socially and politically? I didn’t think it was going to happen, but here we are. So, even just as a person curious about politics, I feel like it’s incumbent upon me to be open and to be curious about religion in all its aspects. I think a lot of it comes from my political work. When I was in Baghdad, religion played such a large part in social life there that it really changed my views. It was after my trip to Baghdad, my experience doing anti-war work in Iraq, that I realized I needed to learn much more, and just be familiar with it.
Meade: Interesting. Roberto Calasso–you ever read him? He runs the Adelphi Publishing House in Italy, but he’s also a writer and specializes in Vedic traditions. He studied at the Warburg Institute at the same time as Agamben, so he has this kind of intermingling curiosity. And he also talks very much about how philosophy and literature cannot extract themselves from moving toward and away but also around the consideration of God or religion.
Chan: What Agamben shows is the clarity with which we can look at certain aspects of contemporary culture if we allow ourselves a religious vantage point. That if the goal is to see things with a certain kind of clarity, then seeing it from an aspect that can be considered religious is an important component to that clarity. To me, you can’t understand Jeff Koons except through religion. It gives him a kind of clarity that no other outlook can give you. Same thing with the religious right, the Tea Party. If you look at it purely from a kind of secular, capitalist, class, or geographic standpoint, you can get some semblance of clarity, but not all of it. An outlook that allows religion in is, to me, a kind of greater clarity about certain aspects of contemporary life–which, again, is shocking to say because this is 2016.
Meade: One of the really interesting responses to the Sade piece is–
Chan: “Is he on drugs?”
Meade: [Laughs] No rather a response to violence being mesmerizing in the piece. It’s disturbing in terms of a kind of artificial violence, but it also is incredibly mesmerizing. It really draws you in, and you kind of hang out with it. There’s actually a lot of engagement with portraying violence in your work. Is that just, again, a kind of gravitational pull?
Chan: Maybe the simplest way of saying it is that I think violence is mesmerizing. And we have an example of this right now insofar as we hear Trump’s rhetoric. There’s a violence and aggression to it that’s mesmerizing. I think it’s mesmerizing because if one identifies with it, one feels that they can make a friend of it. And if we make a friend of that violence and aggression, we think it will protect us. You see?
I think part of the appeal of belonging to something that shows those kind of tendencies is the belief that if we belong to it, it will protect us—that that aggression and that violence will protect us because we have identified with it. And if we identify with it, it may identify with us and see us as being a part of it. So, I think part of the mesmerizing-ness of it may be this. I don’t know what it is, but I think that’s the dynamic of it. I think that’s part that is the aesthetics of violence.
Meade: I recently read a journalistic piece tracing a certain kind of populist American demagoguery, from Huey Long to [George] Wallace, to Trump, where this kind of appeal, as you say, is made to a protectiveness through violence, or, a promise of protection through courting a violent aesthetic. It is really sort of shocking to see it be so unfettered in 2016.
Chan: It’s true. And I think it shows how powerful and compelling that draw is, that pull of violence, and how it echoes with a kind of air of authority that people feel like they ought to belong to if they want to be protected because of the precarious nature of contemporary life–which we all know and feel. I mean, talk about petrified unrest.