Christian Detres sat down with Paul Chan, a writer, artist and publisher to discuss the exhibit Paul Chan: Breathers he recently had go up at the Institute for Contemporary Art where it will stay until January 7th, 2024. Check it out here and read below for Christian’s interview with the esteemed artist.
CHRISTIAN DETRES: Hi Paul! I’m a big fan.
PAUL CHAN: Staaahp…
CD: No you stop. I’m a fan. I was excited that the ICA had your exhibit and I spent quite a bit of time drinking it in. I want to go through the things that you have at the museum because I know that’s what they’re hoping I ask you about, but I also want to talk about some of your legacy. I’ve been fascinated with your unique observation quality. There’s a certain lens, or a prism, through which you see things that recalls a molding of memory and imbues inanimate objects with souls. You mentioned in a previous interview seeing the used car lot, you know, wavy tube men. These air powered, kind of hypnotic, attention getters. It’s silly, a little juvenile, but I can sit and just look at one for like several minutes at a time. Their movements are directed by an, at first glance, random pressure but do have a consistent directional force animating them. You saw an opportunity to create different emotive expressions out of these things by taming the airflow, or pneuma, breaking it to your will, creating an intention in the sculpture. They’re not automatons, but actors in your story. They’re random but curated.
PC: I think maybe the most vivid way to talk about Breathers is that I was desperate back when I was conceiving of the project. I had stopped making artwork. I stopped because I had made a name for myself making video installations. Work that would project from video projectors. Shows on video screens showing in movie theaters. Experimental Film Festivals and such. A lot of screen work, right? I was exhausted with screens. I was over it and I didn’t know what to do next. They came at their moment. We want to believe that our successes are at our own direction, but that’s not necessarily true. I think you’re a part of it but you’re also part of a moment. Those video projects came at a moment when I, and a lot of the art world, had a conception of what art was supposed to look like, and my work fit the description: these large scale video installations. At a certain point, I realized not only did I want to leave that circus, but I couldn’t bear looking at screens anymore. You know what I mean? The iPhone came out in 2007 right? Before smartphones were out, our screens were in our living rooms and in movie theaters and museums. At that point I realized that we’d be surrounded by screens, all the time. The thought that not only would I have to look at screens for my work, but that I would be surrounded by the screen in my pocket – in the subway, on the streets. It felt completely claustrophobic. I felt accosted by screens. So I just left. I quit. I couldn’t bear the thought of making work that I had to look at a screen anymore, so I spent a couple years just wandering in the wilderness. I mean, I did other stuff. I started a press, and I tried to do other things, but I basically quit making art.
CD: I feel you really hard on that. I did that too. It’s Interesting hearing you say that because what I’m doing right now with you, being a journalist, is indicative of that. I mean, I’m a filmmaker. My life is screenwork. Conversing with artists and writing our thoughts down is refreshing. It’s the functional opposite of creating art for a screen. I just completed five years working on a string of video installations with Judith Barry, Sir Isaac Julian, and Julian Rosefeldt and a video-heavy opera with Ellie Papakonstantinou. Things I’m very proud of. But during COVID (and since, if I‘m being honest) I was pretty much in my home attached to screens. Constant Zoom calls; Netflix and decompose on the couch, all the time. It didn’t even feel claustrophobic then because screens were the only way out. I’m still enslaved to my phone, to my TV, to my laptop. Screens all day and well into the night when I doomscroll to sleep. And so I’m actually finding some freedom in writing. Correct me if I’m wrong, I would imagine that most of your audience was expecting that path to continue and didn’t quite track with what you switched gears towards. How did your external world react to that? I ask this more in the context of other artists that are inspired by you (specifically me) that would like to take that leap and try a different medium.
PC: I think people are still reacting. Change is hard for anyone. At a certain point, you realize the thing that you’re good at is maybe killing you. I don’t know how else to put it. That’s what it felt like. And so the question becomes, do you want to keep doing something that you feel is killing you even though you’re good at it? For me, it was a no brainer, because I’m not good at hurting myself. Some people are great at suffering for their art. I’m not good at it. And so I just walk away. Even if it’s good, I walk away. I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it’s too many Western movies.
CD: Ha. Walking off into the sunset…
PC: …on a dusty road. Yeah, but you know, there’s a history of artists who just quit. I kind of love the quitters.
CD: There’s a certain bravery in it.
PC: People try to make everything noble. I’m not trying to make it overly noble.
CD: It takes a little bit of chutzpah, I don’t know, balls, if you will.
PC: Well we’re living in a time now when the very notion of work is being put into question. From the ‘quiet quitting’ stuff to just all the unionism that’s happening right now. I think “what is work for, and who are you working for? And what is it doing to you?” Once upon a time, maybe we could work 80 hours a week and feel like whoever we’re working for would take care of us — pensions, merit-based job security — that doesn’t exist as a reality anymore. I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for my own show, but when people get a chance for a breather, other thoughts come to the floor. Other opportunities and choices become available. At a very basic, very stark level, making moving image work felt like a job. I quit my damn job and tried to figure out what else to do. And it turned out serendipitous. I realized what was most important to me about the moving image work wasn’t actually the images, it was the movement. And so the question becomes, is it possible to create movement without looking at a damn screen? My solution was realizing that I could sculpt air to influence fabric so that I can control it. It took four or five years of r&d.
It takes everything from engineering to a little bit of fluid dynamics to fan mechanics. But, I mean, I can control them now. I mean, not to the degree that I can truly “control” them. It’s almost like setting a fire. You set up a campfire and you can control the size of it, maybe the quality of it even, and then it’ll just go. The breathers function like a campfire at their best. You can’t look away and it’s never the same. The Breathers are sort of a fully-dimensional moving image work connecting to more than your sense of vision.
CD: When I was looking at the sculptures at the ICA, I imagined myself in your shoes and wondered how it felt turning them on for the first time.
PC: Oh, we call it waking them up. It’s always lovely to see them wake up.
CD: The impression I had was that it had to have been like birth. Seeing the thing just sprout, spring up and then come to life. The pushing and pulling and the falling and rising and the constant tripping and falling over itself.
PC: What’s important to me is the quality of the movement. In the history of modern and contemporary art, from about 1910 to now, kinetic sculptures were all mechanical. There have been sculptures that move. You’ve got Jean Tinguely, Rauschenberg, Duchamp even made some. There’s a whole legacy of kinetic art, but all their kinetic artworks are mechanically motorized creations. They have a certain quality of movement. What I knew I wanted out of the movement wasn’t mechanical. I needed something more fluid. I needed something that felt as if it were alive. Like what we would imagine how we move, or an animal, or creature or something. And you can’t get that – I mean you could if you spent millions of dollars working for Disney. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t want to spend that time working with engineers. I just want to do it. The dynamism comes from the fact that it’s air moving through fabric. It gives it that quality of choreography that I so love looking at.
CD: I think people have seen the creative force through the concept of breath. In Genesis, God is described as the stiff wind in the trees that’s coming through in the Garden of Eden. It’s the breath, the breathing life into the body that animates Adam. You could run rushing water through your sculptures and it wouldn’t be the same. You could power them through mechanical means and they would at some point cycle and become predictable. It may be the only true free-moving element. In the Classical sense, not, you know, the periodic table. Air is the lightest, the one that contains the most positive energy. Fire is close, but it’s so destructive and impermanent. It doesn’t have that essential quality of life, of continuance.
PC: Now say, in antiquity, Hericlitus was the one who talked about fire constantly as the ultimate element. I love Heraclitus, but it was Aristotle who really saw that air is the breath of life. Pneuma is really the breath of life that brings energeia, the kind of life-giving energy. So I hate to say that I’m Aristotelian, because Aristotle can be kind of really fussy. I actually like Hericlitus as a philosopher more, but I have to say, there’s definitely an Aristotelian backbone to the concepts explored in Breathers.
Breathers renewed my sense of what was possible. I renewed my sense that art can be a multi sensory experience, and it renewed my sense and purpose in making things. I would have never gotten there if I didn’t quit screenwork. I think quitting has absolutely been a catalyst for Breathers to exist.
CD: I wasn’t anticipating that. I’m glad that we talked about that. That’s a gorgeous thought.
PC: I think we all know we want to survive or thrive, and I think we should. But, at a certain point, I think when we’re being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing, other paths open up, or at least a kind of reconciliation about whether or not the path you’re on is the one that you really want to be on.
CD: There’s a certain recipe of curiosity and confidence that empowers the ability of quitting for yourself.
PC: That’s very diplomatic, but I would just say it was stupid. The TL:DR is sometimes courage just looks crazy. So, I don’t I don’t think it was courageous for me what I did. I definitely thought it was stupid. My galleries definitely thought it was crazy. I didn’t even tell them. I just stopped. I began listening to other things besides those voices that were telling us that we should keep what we have, don’t lose anything. Yeah, keep striving. I think they’re good voices, but they’re not the only voices. It was important for me to listen to those other voices. It’s important to not be afraid of uncertainty. It’s not a threat, it’s just uncertain. I hate quoting Napoleon, but like Napoleon was right when he said “You engage, and then you see.” I think no one should take Napoleon to be a life coach of any kind, but there is some truth to what he said.
CD: Speaking of Old French people who many people would say shouldn’t be a life coach of any kind: while looking into your influences and background I came across your stated appreciation for The Marquis de Sade? His philosophy. There’s all sorts of passages of his that I would never read to my grandmother, but are but there’s also a lot of very pragmatic you know, just really lucid thoughts on just what you owe to the world re: sexuality. You played with Erotica a lot in your publishing efforts.
PC: Haha, we published erotica. We didn’t play with it.
CD: I don’t know why I’m trying to put pants on the project, but I’m just saying it’s, yeah, exactly. It was straight up erotica. I’d imagine many artists would shy away from that, maybe for commercial reasons? Or maybe that’s just not that’s not the voice they’re trying to get out of themselves. But you went there. Where was your head then?
PC: There are maybe two ways to approach it. I think one is to talk a little bit about Sade, and then talk about erotica in general. Sade isn’t necessarily erotic. Sade is very particular. And I think at that time when I did my project called Sade for Sade’s Sake, Abu Grahib was happening. That notorious prison in Baghdad where images were leaked of officers sexually torturing Iraqi prisoners. What struck me about those pictures is that they reminded me of illustrations that accompany books by the Marquis de Sade. I really honed in on this relationship between war, sexual violence, pleasure, and freedom, that I think Sade excelled at communicating these concepts.
I think what we forget about 120 Days of Sodom – I don’t know if you’d call it a masterpiece, but it’s certainly an iconic work of literature. If one were to read it you’ll realize that it’s really about war profiteers. The members of Sade’s cabal in 120 days of Sodom that tortured and kidnapped young and old men and women for their sexual whims were war profiteers with Louis XIV. I saw a direct link between what was happening at Abu Grahib, the air of violence and sexual depravity, with what was happening in America, mirroring the Marquis’ ideas about sex, violence, and freedom. Yeah, so it was very salient for me. I think I’ve always wanted to do something with all this in mind because Sade is a very interesting philosopher, a very interesting writer. I don’t suggest anyone read him. There’s a lot of problematic stuff in there, obviously. You just realize how utterly unique he was.
I think I’ve always wanted to publish erotica. The TL:DR about that is I think we live in a time when it’s harder and harder to be able to say what is pleasing and what is not pleasing. I wanted to give a stage for younger writers to talk about that. Because I think when I started the New Lover series, the erotica series from Badlands Unlimited, it was around the time that Bill Cosby rape culture was being exposed. But on the other hand, there was a kind of flourishing of new understanding of what sexual identity is for people, and also sexual fluidity. And it was just important to me to give writers a space to talk about what is pleasing and what is not pleasing. Not only in terms of sex, but maybe about general pleasure. We live in a country that I think sees pleasure in general as something that should be punished. We live in a country where the Protestant work ethic really underwrites how our economic and social power has risen. Because of this Protestant Puritan underwriting, there’s also a natural tendency to make pleasure punitive.
CD: Interesting. I never thought of it that way.
PC: It goes to the heart of the idea of working really hard. Like if you’re constantly working, you don’t have time to think about what is actually pleasing what is not pleasing. You only have time to work, and then do the things that people tell you what you should do to relax. You don’t actually have time to consider what is actually pleasing to you. Making space for ideas about what is pleasing and what is not pleasing to us is very important. It’s like the notion of the Breather. Giving myself time to figure out what actually is worth doing. And I think it’s very important. I think pleasure is very important. It’s not just like erotic pleasure. It’s just basically like, maybe even spending time with people you care about, you know, or petting your dog, or just putting on a nice pair of socks, or acknowledging that you have a shoe fetish – like I do – and not be ashamed about it. You know?
CD: That’s a key component clearly. The Protestant, puritanical nature of the culture. I agree. I was very interested in breathers but I don’t want to leave without discussing Non Projections for New Lovers.
PC: That’s easy. I’m just torturing video projectors.
CD: It’s funny you say that because I thought of a whimpering scared robot, specifically about the projector that has the wet spot underneath it.
PC: Oh, yeah. I made a video urinated on a cardboard surface.
CD: It seemed to me so uncomfortable. You made an inanimate, faceless projector seem uncomfortable. The idea that the useless lens of the machine itself becomes a cataract rather than a voice box. It’s not saying anything. It becomes an occlusion rather than a vessel.
PC: You got it.
CD: Yes! I win! I win art today. Hahahha. It took a second. There’s a part of me that had to anthropomorphize it. I saw the projector and there were chords that seemingly go into nothing, or not into anything functional. And, like the cemented shoes that they’re plugged into, it seems fruitless and frustrated. The machine is on, but it projects nothing. It has no voice and yet it’s almost like it’s whispering at you that it can’t speak loud enough. But if you get close enough, maybe you might hear what it has to say.
PC: There is light coming out. There is an image. It’s just very difficult to discern. There was definitely a time when I was thinking about torturing projectors, and also thinking about whether or not I can make work out of material that I needed before the projection comes out. And so there is really electricity in the wires. I think that’s why I use so many wires. I mean, I think of it almost like drawing using wires.
CD: The layout of the wires as they lie recalls drawn line work. That was another impression that I had because, in the space at the ICA, it was juxtaposed against some of the drawings and paintings you have on their walls. The thick black lines in your work suggest the wires on the ground. The way the museum put it together really drew the connection.
PC: Sarah Rifky, the curator, did a great job.
CD: Outstanding. Actually, I’ve never said that to her face, but I’m assuming she’ll read this article, and, yeah, she really did. I know you have food coming so let me let you go to dinner. But listen, I’m proud to have had this conversation with you. It was really fun to talk to you and it was very nice to get to know you. Enjoy your dinner. Good night.
Paul Chan: Breathers will be at the ICA from now until January 7th, 2024. Go here to read more about the exhibit. Images courtesy of the ICA.