For the Walker Art Center's blog, Fionn Meade interviews Paul Chan, whose 2009 work Sade for Sade's sake is currently on view at the Minneapolis institution. They talk about Sade, Trump, and violence in the name of patriotism and protection. Chan says, "I think part of the appeal of belonging to something that shows those kind of tendencies is the belief that if we belong to it, it will protect us—that that aggression and that violence will protect us because we have identified with it." Read the full interview via the Walker's online magazine here, or in partial below.
A common feature within Paul Chan’s three works on view in the exhibition Less Than One is the use of silhouette form to question power dynamics. Void of identifying features or specific characteristics, the animated silhouette within Chan’s restive vision invites and prompts us to project possible narratives onto reduced and impoverished images. Embracing what artist and theorist Hito Steyerl has termed the “poor image” of dubious genealogy within digital culture, Chan’s series The 7 Lights (2005–2007), works with “light and light that has been struck out” to depict a shadow cinema of the sacred and profane within contemporary culture.
The tangible yet pared down outline of daily life gradually loses form in the series, with lampposts, cell phones, animals, circuitry, weapons, and people slowly breaking up into fragments that have no single point of gravity. As in 6th Light, on view, the virtual is seen rising and falling in an animated cycle of dissolution. Score for 7th Light, the final piece of the series, pushes toward total abstraction as a musical score of shadow fragments is laid out and contained within the strictures of the music staff across composition pages, offering near impossible instructions for the as-yet-unmade final projection in the cycle.
It is in Sade for Sade’s sake (2009), however, that Chan deploys his poor cinema of the silhouette to truly epic effect, creating an immersive environment of nearly life-sized animated figures engaged in various encounters of sex and violence. Interspersed with floating rectangular forms that recall redacted imagery or censored sections of explicit texts, the mood of Chan’s work speaks to the American psyche at that time. Here, the artist has added a range of toy guns to what is a highly charged site-specific installation of the work. I recently sat down with Chan to discuss this most recent iteration of Sade for Sade’s sake, on view at the Walker, in the Lower East Side office of Badlands Unlimited, the publishing house Chan founded in 2010, devoted to e-books, paper books, and artist works in digital and print forms.
Fionn Meade: Curating Less Than One I noticed a subtheme in the works I was selecting: what does it mean to become American, as opposed to being American? Thinking about your work, I immediately thought: Sade for Sade’s sake needs to be shown—right now. It just felt timely. You don’t over-explain your work, but I know that at the time you were making it there was heightened attention to the extralegal situations of US policy around Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and some of the redacted images that were coming out from Abu Ghraib in particular resonate, I think, for a viewer who’s paying attention to these connections. So, I wanted to first just ask you how you got into the whole Sadean project.
Paul Chan: The origins of the Sade project came from my reading and thinking about Henry Darger. I did a projection piece called Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization, after Charles Fourier and Henry Darger (2003), and Sade was a part of that mix. Why was he a part of the mix? Because he was an artist and a thinker who I believe was on the same wavelength as Darger, insofar as they were both interested in the look of infinitude. Darger’s landscapes looked infinite, like a world. But what you realized if you looked a little more closely is that this world was actually composed of a finite set of elements, that he only drew something like 24 kinds of flowers, but he varied them in such a way that his landscapes were completely populated with all different kinds of flowers. It’s a basic idea of theme and variation. But he had a theme. He had, say, four types of trees, and then he varied them to a point where you couldn’t tell what was happening. And Sade, in a very similar spirit, did that in his writing around ideas and acts of sex and violence.
One of the other things that I thought connected them was the spirit of escape. Darger lived a terribly lonely and isolated life in Chicago, tragic in every meaningful sense. The Marquis de Sade also led a different kind of tragic life, but it’s important for me to remember that he wrote his greatest works while imprisoned, right?
The 120 Days of Sodom was written while he was in the Bastille, and the intensity and the feel of infinitude, I think, come from the desire to escape. So, Sade is a part of the mix of that early animation, but I could never make Sade fit, so I took him out and put him in the back of my mind until after The 7 Lights, when I realized, “Oh, this is a thing I should do. I should follow up with that thinking around Sade.” That’s how it came out.
After The 7 Lights, I re-remembered Sade, and thinking about Sodom, and rereading it, I realized that we don’t really think about it this way, but Sodom was a book about war profiteers, that the four men who perpetrated the atrocious, sexual, violent acts of kidnapping people—girls and boys—to bring them to their chateau to do whatever they want with them, they could do that because they were war profiteers within the war of Louis XIV. They profited from the war of Louis XIV. That really struck me, because at the time that we were living, we were going through a war, the Second Gulf War. We were going through the destruction of countries in the Middle East, and we were hearing stories about war profiteering.