Artists

When Failing Better Leads to Better Sex: Paul Chan’s Antithetical Erotic Vision

Paul Chan, Sock N Tease, 2013, Cord, shoes, concrete, video projectors, digital video (color, silent). TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

Paul Chan, Sock N Tease, 2013, cord, shoes, concrete, video projectors, digital video (color, silent).

TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

Earlier this year, various members of the press gathered on the fifth floor of the Guggenheim Museum in New York for the opening of a solo show for Paul Chan, the most recent recipient of the biennial Hugo Boss Prize, which includes $100,000 and a solo exhibition at that legendary New York City museum. The money may be disposed of in whatever fashion suits the artist. Chan decided to orient his exhibition primarily toward the presentation of three books of erotica published by the eccentric literary press he operates. The five pieces comprising the show, called “Nonprojections for New Lovers,” were lying in a gallery space on the fifth floor. Three of them were literally lying on the floor. These pieces consisted of slightly worn shoes filled with concrete. Each foot-shaped concrete mold was embedded with an electrical outlet. These electrical outlets connected to each other and to EIKI-brand video projectors with power cords, mostly black. Most of the projectors were active, sending blue light, but none cast a discernible image on the surfaces before them.

One mystery, an unobtrusive one, was the question of where the power was coming from. There were no wall sockets to which a viewer might readily attribute the source, though there was an open socket in one shoe of one of the pieces: titled Die All Jennies, the piece had one shoe with two sockets, one of which links, via a black cord, to a projector. This projector was perched on a piece of cardboard and did not cast any light. A large, dark, irregular stain on the cardboard was centered on the projector’s location; it appeared as if the machine, like a small child or poorly kept animal, had wet itself. This felt abject and eerie. One was reminded, belatedly, that there are zero trash receptacles in the exhibition space.

Paul Chan, Play Doh, 2013, cords, shoes, concrete, video projectors, digital video (color, silent). TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

Paul Chan, Play Doh, 2013, cords, shoes, concrete, video projectors, digital video (color, silent).

TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

Like Die All Jennies, the other two power circuits have titles that are near-homophones for a Greek philosopher: Sock N Tease, a closed circuit consisting of two projectors, both active, facing one another at an angle, and two shoes, one upright and one on its side, whose tips pointed outside of the circle, and Play Doh, the most elaborate, with two projectors, active, facing each other, each one trailing several child-sized shoes behind it. In Play Doh, the projectors connected directly to each other, but the black cord between them was longer than all the other cords in the exhibition put together. It formed an arch sustained by two pale rafters. Looking up, across an expanse, there were several ceiling lights and an opaque, and therefore non-projecting, surveillance dome. Plato wished for a cast of vigilant overseers in his ideal Republic. Chan, too, seemed to have planned his exhibition with the awareness that, in the Guggenheim, guardians will always be present—in addition to the security dome, two silent men were posted in the room. They wore black shoes.

Paul Chan, Die All Jennies 1, 2013, cardboard, concrete, cord, shoe, video projector with digital video (color, silent). TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

Paul Chan, Die All Jennies 1, 2013, cardboard, concrete, cord, shoe, video projector with digital video (color, silent).

TOM BISIG, BASEL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/INSTALLATION VIEW: SCHAULAGER, BASEL, 2014

The loudest piece was a projection of a different sort. Tetra Gummi Phone, positioned at a height well out of reach, is a whirring set of horizontally directed fans, the air currents blowing through four large tubes of loose, white nylon fabric. It was hard not to be reminded of an upended, elevated version of those blow-up figures that twist and wobble on the sidewalk in front of a mechanic’s garage while you get your tires changed inside—though the title, a near-homophone of a Greek word synonymous with God (tetragrammaton, meaning “four-lettered,” referring to the Hebrew YHWH), may blow one’s associative tendencies in a more foreign direction. Even travestied as a hollow pusher of air, one thought, God is out of reach; a few low-pitched conversations aside, there was nothing to hear inside the room aside from the machine.

There was considerably less ambiguity surrounding the last piece: “Prototypes for New Lovers,” a collection of proof copies of three erotic novellas that Chan’s small press, Badlands Unlimited, has published under the rubric of “New Lovers.” The copies were set beside each other and sequestered by plastic. Colored Post-it notes protruded from them; their covers, plum with white serifed letters, were marked up in pen with practical queries: Where’s the price? Should this font be smaller? How about this cover image?

The erotic content (or rather, the promise of erotic content) in the titles and back cover copy, though not especially remarkable in themselves, had nonetheless activated certain thematic resonances latent in the other pieces in the exhibition: suddenly, the shoe/projector circuits, with all the plugs and sockets, seemed kind of abstractly smutty, like mute electronic orgies; the shapes formed by the fans on high took on a certain hermaphroditic tinge, the tubes seeming simultaneously phallic, vaginal, and prophylactic. One thought, too, of Socrates and Plato’s elision of philosophical and erotic instruction, and of Diogenes, vagrant and public masturbator. (After being called out on it, he only stated his wish that hunger could be cured as easily by rubbing his stomach.) What exactly is that stain, chemically speaking? High up in a white-walled institution, a museum whose basic purpose—preservation—was congenitally opposed to waste, one found oneself executing the exact same protocol (guess, but by all means avoid, the liquid near your feet) required during countless city sidewalk promenades.

Paul Chan at the launch of Badlands Unlimited's New Lover books. ENID ALVAREZ

Paul Chan at the launch of Badlands Unlimited’s ‘New Lovers’ books series.

ENID ALVAREZ

In the Guggenheim’s communications department, on the eighth floor of the museum, Chan conducted interviews behind a closed door in the conference room. A short, slender man who looked younger than his age (he was born in 1973), Chan was casually dressed in a gray sweater and jeans. His voice was very quiet and intent, and I worried throughout our conversation that the voice recorder wasn’t strong enough to catch him. Our conversation lasted less than 20 minutes and didn’t get very far: neither one of us was especially eager to attempt to explain Chan’s art to the other. When I asked him, however, about the open socket in Die All Jennies, he did suggest that it functions as a kind of public service, offering the audience an opportunity to recharge their devices free of charge, though not free of risk (who knows how the guards would respond).

We talked instead about philosophy. Chan, in his writings on art, is capable not only of citing major Western philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Adorno, et al.) but also of judging between their temperaments (he is convinced that philosophers register at the level of affect before all else) and synthetically assembling new conclusions from their suppositions. When I expressed a less articulate version of this opinion to him, he responded with a mixture of doubt, modesty, and elusiveness that seemed characteristic of him: he was prepared to entertain the idea that he’s not truly conversant, but merely posturing—a “complete egoist,” as he put it, of the worst kind.

He was much less reticent regarding the origins of his interest in philosophy than he was regarding his expertise in the field. As a boy of 12 or 13 living in Omaha, Nebraska, Chan confronted himself with seemingly impossible questions. Why was he so ugly? Why didn’t any girls like him? Would he always be alone? Would he always feel different from other people? Taking Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy (1926) as a guide, he proceeded to read, intensely and without worrying about exact apprehension, the thinkers that Durant had artfully summarized, treating them, in his words, “like self-help.”

Though he later found the advice those philosophers gave him to be “bullshit,” this period of reading fortified Chan’s mind and will, preparing him for an even more formative encounter. A couple of years later, he successfully asked a high-school senior out on a date (he was a high-school freshman); seeking to impress her, he brought her to a performance of short plays by Samuel Beckett; these, with their precise conjunctions of space, light, and emotive language, struck him with the force of an epiphany.

It hasn’t worn off: when I idly mentioned the shoes in his exhibition, Chan immediately brought up shoes in Beckett, how they rarely, if ever, were the proper size; it wasn’t long before he was calmly but enthusiastically commending the recently published volumes of Beckett’s letters: “No other books within the last couple of years have, to me, illuminated the plight of what it means to be a young artist…just magnificent. And the lengths he went to, to guard his humanity while being present in the world, in order to make time to do what he thought he had to do to make his work worthwhile, is just nothing short of breathtaking.”

Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–3, digital video projection (color, sound).PAUL CHAN/©PAUL CHAN/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, FRACTIONAL AND PROMISED GIFT OF DAVID TEIGER

Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–3, digital video projection (color, sound).

PAUL CHAN/©PAUL CHAN/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, FRACTIONAL AND PROMISED GIFT OF DAVID TEIGER

His devotion to Beckett would lead him toward a new education: by looking up the Irish exile’s cultural contemporaries, then looking up their own associates and influences, Chan, while still in high-school, immersed himself in the entire body of 20th-century Continental literature, thought, and art. Many years later, a sensibility much akin to Beckett’s—grim, pure, sharp, tortured, somehow still human—would emerge from Chan’s own work. His first exhibitions were video animations, elaborate, clean, irregular, and colorful projections of a humane society and its absence. Happiness (Finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization (2003) alternates between scenes of amiable leisure and eroticism among a community of girl hermaphrodites and scenes of violation, strife, and carnage as uniformed adults wage war upon said community. My Birds…trash…the future (2004) presents time passing in a desert wasteland where gentle, ominous birds perch on a sterile tree and human figures are in short supply; eventually, hunters murder the birds and suicide bombers eliminate the landscape altogether. In these early productions, Chan proved himself to be an exceptionally well-developed artist. Though Happiness and My Birds have an implicitly Manichean element, their power isn’t diluted by overt moralizing, but rather amplified by Chan’s capacity to convert the terrifying, passive lack of judgment typical of contemporary life into a withholding, a willful refusal to judge.

Of course, Chan wouldn’t have to restate his belief in a firm line between art and politics had his exhibitions not seemed to toe that line continuously. It was impossible to ignore the political valence of his most prominent exhibition to date, a 2007 public staging of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city remained mostly in disarray two years later in large part due to the low priority that the government (the same government whose inaction and incompetence had drastically worsened the damage to begin with) had placed on hastening its recovery. The parallels between this situation and that of Beckett’s play, set in a blasted landscape with a single tree, its plot revolving around two vagrants waiting for someone (the titular figure) who fails, continually, to arrive and save them, were not hard for the native audience to discern. Likewise, the body-shaped shadows in rapid descent or ascent that figure prominently in Chan’s The 7 Lights (2007) and the body-shaped shadows interminably engaged in extreme forms of sexual congress and/or slavery in Sade for Sade’s Sake (2009) brought to mind, respectively, the images of bodies plummeting from the Twin Towers and the images from Abu Ghraib of bodies being humiliated via sexual abuse. The title piece of a later work, My Laws Are My Whores (2009), consisted of realistic charcoal drawings of the nine justices of the Supreme Court—it seemed to function as, among other things, a reminder that the law is a human creation and that humanity itself is not a given, but involves a process of constant, mutual reconstruction.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007, performance view, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/PRODUCED BY: CREATIVE TIME, NEW YORK AND THE CLASSICAL THEATRE OF HARLEM

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007, performance view, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK/PRODUCED BY: CREATIVE TIME, NEW YORK AND THE CLASSICAL THEATRE OF HARLEM

Chan has also been politically active outside of his aesthetic practice: while studying in Chicago, he demonstrated in support of the Teamsters strike against UPS; with other antiwar activists, he traveled to Iraq before the invasion to speak with ordinary Iraqis; he helped assemble, in 2011, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. But his consistent, adamant refusal to blur the lines between art and politics derives, one suspects, from a belief that explicit moral judgment invigorates politics as much as it drains art of its power: there is no more to be gained from confusing art with politics than there is from confusing the evidence with the verdict, the eye with the tongue, inhaling with exhaling. (Beckett himself, who participated in the Resistance during World War II and kept abreast of world events but whose plays and fiction were singularly absent of any partisan coloring, provides a valuable example of maintaining a fruitful distinction between the two.)

Paul Chan, 3D_exhibition_plan_2015, 2015, digital animation.©PAUL CHAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, BADLANDS UNLIMITED, AND GREEN NAFTALI, NEW YORK

Paul Chan, 3D_exhibition_plan_2015, 2015, digital animation.

©PAUL CHAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, BADLANDS UNLIMITED, AND GREEN NAFTALI, NEW YORK

Chan’s ready willingness, in our conversation, to admit his relative lack of knowledge was something of a protective mechanism, a polite, efficient way to fend off overzealous or misguided interpreters, but it was also a license for his interlocutors to be more aware, but less ashamed, of the fact of their own ignorance. His responses to questions were indefinite, inconclusive: they awaited a response. For example, he digressed from a question about the absence of moral judgment in pornography by inverting it (“My guess is that the worst lovers tend to be the most judgmental.”); in another conversation, he posed a question to the questioner: “What do you think of the Old Testament?” It’s not hard to perceive a similar impulse—the desire to gain knowledge in the process of a conversation predicated on a frank admission of ignorance—to his more recent (post-Godot in New Orleans) art: by making shadows or blackness or traces (i.e. shoes) the “material” through which human presence is conducted, Chan, like the allegory of the cave he quietly invokes, can suggest to his audience (without ever forcing the issue) that to be human is to be in the dark, wanting, questionable. He articulates a quiet, willful reminder that the only honest answer to the question of how much one knows is “not enough.” In art or in politics, there’s no lack of ignorance. Ignorant people calling other people ignorant is a pastime as old as language. But being open with one’s own ignorance in such a way as to reduce it, for others and oneself: this is rare and new. It could happen all the time and still be rare and new.

In a restricted area in the auditorium in the Guggenheim’s lower level, there is a small conference room as well as a break area and bathroom for the museum’s security. The bathroom has employee lockers and a bench beneath which pairs of empty shoes are neatly lined up. The break area contains vending machines, a water dispenser (cold and scalding hot), and tables. It was over one of these tables that Chan and I briefly resumed our conversation one evening in the week following our first meeting. Once again, I projected some meanings and he switched the topic to something more interesting, and I didn’t mind.

The occasion was the imminent launch/reading event for the “New Lovers” books in the auditorium. It seemed typically prankish and generous of Chan (as I understood him) to have taken his six-figure prize and Guggenheim solo exhibition largely as a chance to peddle smut and raise the profiles of his authors; typical, too, that he would do all this successfully and calmly. The auditorium seated over 200 and was fairly brimming with people; afterward, at the reception in the lobby, a long line waited for their turn to buy one to three titles. I have been to many book launches and this was the first to feature the phrase “reindeer dildo,” at least as part of the reading. It was also the first where the invariable, and invariably dumb, audience question about autobiographical content was even slightly intriguing. (The answer was no.)

Publishers typically finance books that sell less with books that sell more, and Chan and Badlands Unlimited are no different in this regard. The porn will, hopefully, pay for the poetry and much of the rest. What’s strange, though, in the case of the Badlands catalog, is that sometimes the books that sell less and the books that sell more are the same book, more or less: the press publishes solid, limited-edition art books at the three or low four-figure prices typical of that genre, but also publishes e-book versions of those books at the one or low two-figure prices typical of that medium. Chan founded the press in 2010 after temporarily retiring from the art world, and the press faithfully reflects his frame-breaking sensibility: it has published a stone tablet in an edition of one, an artist’s book of diced screenshots available only in digital form, and Saddam Hussein, writing on democracy.

Three books from the series, 'New Lovers' (New York: Badlands Unlimited). ©2015 BADLANDS UNLIMITED

Three books from the series, ‘New Lovers’ (New York: Badlands Unlimited).

©2015 BADLANDS UNLIMITED

Even the “New Lovers” novellas possess something more than meets the flesh. One of the three books, Lilith Wes’s We Love Lucy, is a more or less blow-by-blow narrative of the title character’s deepening relations with her gay best friend and his partner. But Wednesday Black’s How to Train Your Virgin and Andrea McGinty’s God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name take time out to comment archly on the romantic coldness of hipsters, and God, I Don’t Even… doubles as a satire about compromising social positions: Eva, a young American female artist whose relative success hasn’t done much to eliminate her six-figure student-loan debt, strives to cure her depression with app-enabled sex addiction while abroad in Europe, fucking, among many others, a London businessman and a Viennese curator. (“Frederik started to sweat as he unfastened his pants and began to stroke himself, predictably mumbling something about a solo show in Eva’s future.”)

As Chan well knows, the book business makes for interesting bedfellows: Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, one of the inspirations for Badlands, published not only erotica of varying quality but also Valerie Solanas’s incendiary SCUM Manifesto and the English translations of Beckett’s novels. If sex, politics, and art are searching for a conjuncture that suits each and all, it’s not impossible that a publisher who strives to balance them might come across some insight into the matter. In a sense, it’s a homecoming for Chan. Because he was open to books, the world came to be open for him; it only seems fair to return the favor and have books open for the world.

A closing word regarding the strange personal circuits leading to museums: The modern-art section of the Guggenheim in which Paul Chan’s exhibition appears owes many of its original artworks to the purchases and taste of Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim, bohemian, heiress, and erotomaniac. In Paris, near the end of 1939, a friend and new lover had recommended she focus her energies on acquiring contemporary (now modern) art, not classic art. Her original plans for a museum in Paris soon had to be discarded, however: when the German army invaded and conquered northern France in the spring of 1940, Guggenheim, a Jew, was forced to return to her native America. The designer of the uniforms worn by the Nazi occupiers who drove her out? Hugo Boss. And who should be the sexual partner who helped to point her in the direction of modern art if not the personal hero of 2014 Hugo Boss Prize winner and Guggenheim exhibitionist Paul Chan, a certain Samuel Beckett?

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