Paul Chan, Khara En Penta (Joyer in 5), 2019. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
The Walker Art Center presents Paul Chan: Breathers, which is the first major US-based museum exhibition of artist, writer, and publisher Paul Chan (US, b. Hong Kong, 1973), featuring his works in 15 years. Chan, who was recently awarded the prestigious 2022 MacArthur Fellowship, came to prominence in the early 2000s with vibrant moving image works that touched on aspects of war, religion, pleasure, and politics. Around 2009, Chan embarked on what he described as a “breather” from the art world, turning his attention to experimental publishing by founding the press Badlands Unlimited. This exhibition traces the artist’s return to art-making through approximately 40 works and suites of objects, including a new installation made especially for the Walker. Together, the featured works capture Chan’s creative and conceptual innovations, from his publishing through to his current experimentations with the boundless possibilities of the moving image. Following its presentation at the Walker, on view through July 16, 2023, the exhibition will travel to the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU: September 8, 2023–January 7, 2024 and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis: March 8–August 11, 2024.
Organized in three chapters, the exhibition highlights radical publications produced by Badlands Unlimited, including selections of paperbacks, e-books, zines, GIFs, protest signs, and books on stone tablets across such genres as erotic fiction, artists’ writings, philosophy, and poetry. Badlands Unlimited was established in 2010 with the vision to challenge and expand the possibilities of publishing through experimentation with language, technology, design, and networks of circulation.
Paul Chan, The argument: haircut (of the year), 2012-2013. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo by Jason Mandelia.
In 2012 Chan began considering the possibilities that could result from freeing the moving image from the screen and the confines of the frame more broadly. Works in his Arguments series (2012–2013) feature electrical cords plugged into a spectrum of objects and surfaces, from walls and doors to furniture to concrete-filled shoes. These gave way to the Nonprojections (2013), which separated the working projector—its lights flickering—from any surface onto which it could illuminate an image. These works, which broke the natural processes of projection and animation, laid the groundwork for his newest explorations.
A new series of works titled Breathers is also included in the presentation, which explore animation through sculptural forms. These billowing, fan-powered fabric bodies, described by Chan as “animated by breath,” suggest notions of friendship, vulnerability, dependency, and conflict. The works shift the action of the moving image into real space and in connection with the people in it. Chan has taken the same precision to the choreography of motion with these kinetic installations as with the intricate animations of his early career.
At the same time, the Breathers’ billowing forms convey a sense of openness and breath—a notion central to Chan’s life and career since 2009 and one that is amazingly astute in its relationship to our contemporary climate, as we all grapple with the ramifications of the pandemic, the proliferation of digital screens, and the profound and pervasive communal sense of burnout.
Paul Chan, The Indiscreet Jewels by Denis Diderot, 2012. Private Collection, Boston. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo by Jason mandelia.
“In 2009, I was questioning my work, my motivations, and what art really meant to me. I needed to take a breather—something I believe is critical to how we renew our capacity for new thoughts and feelings. What I learned from that break has become central to my practice now,” said Chan. “My newest work is a kind of choreography animated by breath, and it is providing me with the means to imagine movement and the moving image way beyond the screen. I could not have foreseen how significant these ideas would become during these hard and mean times, as our lives become increasingly mediated by digital screens. It feels important to break art and ourselves from those frames, to be present and breathing in the moment.”
“It takes courage to turn away from familiar ways of doing things and search instead for new possibilities and meaning in life and work,” said Pavel Pyś, the Walker’s curator, Visual Arts. “This exhibition shows how Paul consistently challenges and expands the possibilities of publishing, activism, and the limits of how we understand the moving image medium. We are thrilled to present the exhibition and catalogue that together shed light on shifts in Paul’s practice across the last decade.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a Walker-produced catalogue, created in close collaboration with Chan, with contributions by the artist, exhibition curator Pavel Pyś, and Vic Brooks, senior curator of time-based visual art at EMPAC, Troy, New York.
About the Exhibition
Curatorial Team: Pavel Pyś, curator, Visual Arts; with Matthew Villar Miranda, curatorial fellow, Visual Arts
Dates: Nov 17, 2022–Jul 16, 2023
Venue: Gallery B/Target, the Walker Art Center
Courtesy the artist and the Walker Art Center.