I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the work of Paul Chan in 2006, when I happened to see one of his video installations in the cavernous former factory space of Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. Chan’s piece, drawn with a deceptive crudeness and colored in bright hues, was a computer animation with the wonderful sinewy title Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization — after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier (2003). The video manages to transpose the characters and palette of Darger’s 15,145-page outsider-art magnum opus onto a scene that draws upon the ideas of the 19th century utopianist and philosopher Charles Fourier — somehow it coheres. Within Chan’s visionary world, Darger’s Vivian Girls embark on a series of strange adventures: they prance through fields of flowers, defecate on tables during a gluttonous banquet (pay attention during this scene and the viewer will hear a strangely baroque Casio version of Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin’”), graphically engage in every manner of orgiastic practice, endure war and torture, and finally, they enact revenge on their adult oppressors.
The piece ignited Chan’s career in the art world a decade ago. Since that time, he has embarked upon many projects that incorporate a wide span of aesthetic and political concerns. Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), a wandering documentary in a similar vein as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, chronicles the time that Chan spent in sanction-crippled Iraq with the activist group Voices in the Wilderness. Another animated video installation, My Birds … trash … the future (2004), places Biggie Smalls and Pier Paolo Pasolini (murder victims, both) within a war-ravaged setting that is equal parts Leviticus, Goya, and Godot. As part of a group functioning under the umbrella name of The Friends of William Blake, in 2004 Chan helped design The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention, which was released into the world as 25,000 foldable maps of New York City with information geared specifically towards visiting protestors (locating practical resources as well as the addresses of key RNC sponsors and war profiteers).
In 2007, Chan staged a series of acclaimed outdoor performances of Waiting for Godot in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly sections of post-Katrina New Orleans. The 7 Lights (2005–2007), Chan’s solo show at the New Museum in 2008, was centered around a series of floor-projected light installations that investigated Biblical accounts of the apocalypse by illustrating both levitating material-cultural detritus and 9/11’s falling bodies. And in 2009, he showed Sade for Sade’s Sake, an elaborate multidisciplinary take on Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom that had at its focal point a nearly six-hour projection of silhouetted figures entwined in a variety of sexual scenarios with ample amounts of perversion, humiliation, and domination.
But in his keynote address at the 2012 New York Art Book Fair, Chan claimed that after such a frenzied period of activity, he had decided to stop working. He’d declined fresh offers to exhibit and didn’t make new pieces. Citing other figures who have simply “stopped” as inspiration — workers going on strike, Marcel Duchamp (who famously quit the art world, though not art-making, at the height of...read more