New York–based artist, writer, and publisher Paul Chan (US, b. Hong Kong, 1973) came to prominence in the early 2000s with vibrant moving image works that touched upon aspects of war, religion, pleasure, and politics. In 2009, following a decade of art-making, Chan embarked on a self-imposed break, turning his attention to experimental publishing and the economics of information by founding the press Badlands Unlimited. Taking the notion of a “breather” as its organizing principle, this exhibition surveys Chan’s activities since his voluntary break from that point to the present.
Paul Chan: Breathers opens with the 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.
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.
The presentation also showcases a new series of works titled Breathers, 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.
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.
Contains mature language and themes.
Sensory Note: This exhibition includes multiple kinetic sculptures that are composed of high-powered fans that inflate fabric sculptures, causing them to move. The fans produce sound.
Pavel Pyś, curator, Visual Arts; with Matthew Villar Miranda, curatorial fellow, Visual Arts
Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU: September 8, 2023–January 7, 2024
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis: March 8–August 11, 2024