Paul Chan’s “Selected Works,” installed over two floors of the Schaulager and spilling out onto LED screens on the building’s exterior, is the New York-based artist’s most extensive exhibition to date. The show hits full speed on the upper, entrance floor with videos and projections, among them the roughly pixelated animation Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-03, Chan’s meditation on violence, rape and general mayhem, based on Darger’s famous “Vivian Girls” stories. The “7 Lights” series (2005-07) are also animations, each projected onto the floor in a rectangular shape that appears to be sunlight cast through a window over the course of an accelerated day. Here we find apocalyptic scenes, as in 1st Light (2005), where shadow silhouettes of people, animals and objects seem hurled about by a hurricane or some such force capable of ripping humans and chattel clean off the earth.
Also present are Chan’s more overtly political works. Following a visit to Iraq before the 2003 invasion, Chan compiled the book On Democracy by Saddam Hussein (2012), which includes his own illustrations and three speeches by Hussein written prior to his presidency. It is presented on a shelf alongside numerous other book works. Nearby, the framed “Alternumerics” prints (2000-05) contain tables of “new” alphabets with alternative forms of letters, numbers and punctuation. Pictograms of Malcolm X and a bereted figure, for example, commemorate the Black Panther movement. Chan’s staging (in collaboration with the Classical Theatre of Harlem) of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina obliquely criticized relief efforts in the devastated city. It is represented here by such props as Untitled (Tree for Waiting for Godot), 2007, a thin metal pole with one rudimentary metal branch, topped by a real, if diminutive, branch stripped bare.
On the floor below, the show continues with more than a dozen works from the “Argument” series of sculptural installations (2012-14), as well as many drawings, large and small, in ink or pencil on paper. The Argument: Antietam (2013), in the atrium, consists of a scattering of shoes filled with concrete. Plugged into the shoes are electrical cables, constituting an unruly web; at the center, one of the cables is drawn more than 90 feet upward to the building’s ceiling. Volumes (2012) blankets two huge walls of the atrium with 1,005 opened book covers, painted over with neat rectangular abstractions or landscape images. The epic digital projection Sade for Sade’s Sake (2009), included in the 2009 Venice Biennale, presents encounters among silhouetted figures that range in tone from cajoling to violent.
The heftiest punch is delivered at the end of the show, in two adjoining galleries. Master Argument (2013), another arrangement of concrete-filled shoes and cables more than 50 feet in diameter, occupies a huge gallery, with several smaller installations in the next. Chan uses the tall colonnaded space between to foster a tangible sense of desolation.
Chan’s investigations of violence feel focused and purposeful, particularly in his videos and projections, where he is always working at a remove—through a windowpane, or with a deliberate naiveté, as if intent on avoiding slick production values. Such cool restraint feels appropriate when applied to controversial and explicit subject matter. But it can grow wearying. By contrast, the concentration on materiality at the close of this exhibition offers some relief—if only cold comfort.