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University of Basel

25 June 2014

The Art of Artfulness – Paul Chan at Schaulager

Schaulager is currently hosting the most extensive exhibit to date of works by the artist Paul Chan. A visit to the exhibit together with Laurenz professor Dr. Susanne Leeb, who organized a joint seminar together with Chan.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Leeb in front of Paul Chan’s «Volumes».
Professor Susanne Leeb in front of Paul Chan’s “Volumes”.

“Working with him was an incredibly enriching experience!” Susanne Leeb is standing on the ground floor of Schaulager and is gushing about the charismatic artist who currently has a solo exhibition on display at Schaulager: Paul Chan, born in 1973 in Hong Kong, raised in America and known for his wit, humor and wide range of interests that span the entire spectrum of cultural history from Horkheimer to Justin Bieber.

And it was these interests that brought Chan to Susanne Leeb at the art history seminar. Nearly a year before setting up the exhibition, he asked the art historian whether she might like to collaborate with him. He wanted to get involved in order to connect with the place in a way that went beyond the installation.

Susanne Leeb can recall the young artist's enthusiasm well: “At first, he even wanted to lead an entire seminar. But I ended up advising him against this.” That would have involved too much of an obligation to be present every week during the semester. A seminar materialized nonetheless: Poetics and Politics of Contemporary Art with Paul Chan. The artist gave two semi-public lectures and accompanied students on a visit to the exhibition.

The artist as an artful figure

Paul Chan's collaboration with the seminar focused on the idea of the artist as an artful figure. While doing close readings of Odysseus, he asked himself and the students questions about the role of the artist: What strategies do artists employ to dupe the system or themselves? What strategies are there for escaping codification? Leeb thinks that the Odysseus myth is, in many ways, an apt analogy: “The best example is the part where Odysseus is detained by Calypso. He lives in happiness but still wants to leave. It is this turmoil that interests Chan and that can be applied to various situations in the art world.” For example, the art market: How do artists move within the circles into which they are locked and how do they escape them? For Chan, it is his maneuverability that enables him to escape. “Paul Chan is an artist who is always in motion and who reverses, dissolves or inserts fixed meanings into new contexts,” the professor explains.

New contexts for existing attributions are also a central theme in the first work encountered when visiting the exhibition: To All The Girls I’ve Drawn Before (After Happiness) (2002) is a framed chart of female figures in various positions in which two alternative world views collide. To All The Girls... borrows from the social utopia envisioned by French social theorist Charles Fourier, who described an ideal society in which the satisfaction of desire represents the ultimate goal of social organization. The female figures themselves, on the other hand, are references to outsider artist Henry Darger, whose epochal manuscript The Realms of the Unreal includes the story of seven girls fighting against an evil regime of child slavery. A number of cultural references are deployed for this purpose. For example, one recognizes Hans Bellmer's images of dismembered bodies, the chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge, and the famous Vietnam War photograph of the crying child fleeing a village after a napalm attack.

From Leeb's perspective, Chan is primarily concerned with thematizing the dialectic of the Enlightenment through numerous references. Darger and Fourier describe a society that suffers from the dictates of the Enlightenment, liberates itself from the constraints of reason and returns to a state of desire. “Art, too, raises the question of how dominant or repressive processes of rationalization are.”

The artfulness of reinterpretation

A very different sort of doomsday scenario than in To All The Girls... is presented in Shadow Sonatas, as described in the exhibition catalog for Chan's series The 7 Lights, in which visitors can observe trapezoidal light images with shadows of cars, people and animals passing by. These are images that instantly evoke memories of 9/11 and the photo of the man falling from one of the World Trade Centers during the terror attacks. In Chan's work, too, people fall as the objects glide silently by in the opposite direction to the sky. “The status of the image here is interesting – a sort of reversal of the vampire principle. That is, the body is long gone and only its shadow remains discernible,” Leeb explains. “At the same time, you immediately associate each shadow with a referent. Thus, the silhouette leaves perhaps an even stronger impression behind than its material equivalent.”

While Chan is quite a jovial person, he operates on a very different level as an artist. Here, his humor is not comical but rather full of wit without toppling into didacticism. Art-historical, political and social issues are subtly woven into his work, creating artwork that reveals itself only upon second glance. This is true of his work Volumes, a grid of 1005 books attached to the wall of the atrium. Taking a closer look, the observer notices that the book covers are painted – small areas with outlines of clouds, mountains and moons decorate the jackets. In addition, the books are missing all of their pages – they are shells decorating the large wall of Schaulager like a single giant image, while their original content can be rediscovered as collages in books from Chan's e-book publisher Badlands Unlimited.

The publisher is currently Paul Chan's only internet presence; the artist shut down his website when the exhibit opened at Schaulager. The homepage features nothing more than an “R.I.P.” with the background of a frowning face. Susanne Leeb does not know why he removed his artist presence from the internet. “He just said that he wants to do something new. Perhaps he wanted to get away from the outside world's appetite for art and artists. Maybe it has something to do with the retrospectives, which are always somewhat difficult for a living artist.” Or, as the art historian can also imagine, it is perhaps another clever ploy by the young American artist, who will someday emerge again unexpectedly and, in the best sense of the word, dupe us with something new.

Paul Chan – Selected Works, Schaulager, Münchenstein/Basel, through to 19 October 2014.

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