Hours before his “Nonprojections for New Lovers” was unveiled at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, this year’s Hugo Boss Prize winner Paul Chan spoke about his multimedia work.
Chan is known for his experimentalism, and his new show focuses on images and how sensory information gives an illusion of reality. To that end, the exhibition uses projectors that seem to be powered by shoes flickering out into space. There is also a piece of nylon set in motion by fans, which act as what Chan calls “sculptural animation.” The show also features Badlands Unlimited, a publishing enterprise he founded in 2010 under the motto “We make books in an expanded field.” As a tie-in, Badlands is launching a series of erotica called “New Lovers,” which is featured in the exhibition and sold in the Guggenheim’s store. In addition, three up-and-coming writers will read from “New Lovers” on March 10 at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum. The exhibition is on view through May 13.
Known for his political activism as well as his art, in 2002 Chan spent a month in Baghdad with the help of Voices in the Wilderness at a time when U.S. sanctions forbade working in Iraq. Two years later, as a member of the Friends of William Blake collective, Chan helped create and hand out “The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention,” a road map for protesters. Not eager to get out of town anytime soon, the Hong Kong-born, Nebraska-bred Chan prefers to spend his days in his Brooklyn studio.
Here, a quick chat with Chan.
WWD: Are you pleased with how the show came together?
PAUL CHAN: Yeah, the electricity is on, the heat is on, the lights are on — it’s good.
WWD: How did you find out?
PC: They called me at the Badlands office, the press that I run in Sunset Park. I have been there for seven or eight years. Mondays and Tuesdays are publishing days, so that’s when I run Badlands Unlimited with my crew. Wednesdays through Fridays, I’m not exactly sure what I do. It depends. For the past couple of months it’s been snowing and I’ve been preparing for the Guggenheim in New York.
WWD: Is it difficult to imagine your work in the actual space when you’re creating it?
PC: I think it’s difficult to imagine in general. But in this space, no. I saw the space. I know the space. I’ve never shown in it. The Guggenheim team has been very good about collaborating with me on the distribution.
WWD: If you were to ballpark how much time it took to create the five pieces that will be shown, what would you guess?
PC: Um, about eight-and-a-half million years — give or take.
WWD: In terms of coming up with ideas, what actually strings it all together for you?
PC: The simplest answer is, you never know. People who know the idea is worth pursuing and pursue it because they know — I’m just not familiar with those kinds of people. You never know. The new work that we have now, I still don’t know. I kind of don’t know what it is, really. But I think out of necessity, you keep going and you try to compose it. At some point, a composition sparks a kind of attentiveness in me that enables me to keep going. But I never know.
WWD: How do you describe your own work to people who may have never seen it?
PC: What I do is I try to cheat fate in every regard. You and I both know we’re going to go at some point, right? We’re going to leave this mortal coil. And that, in a way, is a kind of fate. I mean, we age. I mean, I’m aging much more than I want to, really — much more than anyone wants to. That’s a kind of fate. Also, there are other kinds of fate where there are forms of authority and somehow things are destined to be a certain way, like the idea that maybe the police are supposed to protect us in a certain way. They have the authority for that and it’s fated to be that way whether or not they do, in fact…so that’s a kind of fate, where there are pre-existing uses and meanings of things and we follow them. Whether we have any say over fate, I don’t know. But I know in artwork and in the kind of work that I admire, whatever medium it is, they’re always trying to cheat things.
WWD: Will you do anything to celebrate the award?
PC: I’m celebrating right now. I’m having lunch. I try to have it every day. It’s kind of a minor celebration. I’m not really into major ones. I’ll just do the minor ones.
WWD: Where will you travel to next? Do you know what your next project will be?
PC: I hate to travel. I prefer to go nowhere. It’s terrible from the 5,000 security checkpoints to the sleep, to the food. I mean, what is great about it? So I have no plans to go anywhere.
WWD: Do you see your work as political?
PC: No, I don’t. That’s not to say it isn’t. But it’s not up to me to say. I think whatever it is that I make, if it is something worth paying attention to, has a stake in being what it is beyond me.
WWD: Some people debate the commercialization of art. Do you see these types of prizes as integral for broadening the exposure of artists’ work? In that, without them artists might not be exposing their work to the number of people there are.
PC: However people may feel about the commercialization, awards in general tend to do that. Let’s look at a much larger award like the Oscars — people find out about things by watching the Oscars. The 10 people who ended up watching the Oscars this year found out about films they might not otherwise see. Awards are forms of expanding the audience.
WWD: Apparently, Hugo Boss is having a labor dispute with factory workers in Turkey about the right to unionize. Is that something you were aware of?
PC: No, I wasn’t aware of it. Troubling. [Hugo Boss executives did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.]