Paul Chan: Breathers
Paul Chan: Breathers is the first major US-based museum exhibition of works by artist, writer, and publisher Paul Chan (US, b. Hong Kong, 1973) 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.
Organized in three chapters, the presentation features 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 exhibition 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.
“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.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a Walker-produced catalog, 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. Paul Chan: Breathers is organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and curated by Pavel Pyś, Curator, Visual Arts; with Matthew Villar Miranda, Curatorial Fellow, Visual Arts. The ICA’s exhibition is organized by Sarah Rifky, Senior Curator and Director of Programs.
The exhibition’s presentation at the ICA at VCU is made possible by generous support from:
Mark and Melanie Cross
Deborah and Thomas Valentine
John Barrows, Jr.
John and Michelle Nestler
Support for the exhibition catalog is provided by Greene Naftali, New York; Maja Oeri, Schaulager Basel; and a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of Walker Art Center publications.