Times New Roman
The second time I meet Paul Chan at his Brooklyn studio, there’s a small earthquake. The couch we’re sitting on shakes. Chan gets up and looks around. People have left the large warehouse in New York where he works, and are standing on the streets. So we evacuate, wait, and, after nothing happens, go back indoors. On the way up to his studio, Chan offers a suggestion for this interview. “Say that I caused the earthquake,” he says. “We were talking about friendship, or men, and suddenly my eyes turned bright green and I started speaking Aramaic.”
This kind of joke is characteristic of Chan, who’s made himself known as a sort of art-world trickster. Born in Hong Kong, he moved to Omaha (“the birthplace of Malcolm X and also Ed Ruscha”) as a child partly because the Hong Kong air was making him sick. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then Bard College, where he earned an MFA. Chan’s art treats political subjects in lyrical, often incongruous ways. In 2002, he traveled with an American aid group, Voice in the Wilderness, to Iraq, where he filmed Baghdad on the eve of the Iraq War—intimate scenes of cafés and interviews with the city’s residents. His collection of poetic shadow projections, The 7
Lights, premiered at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2007, and he gained national prominence later that year for a staging of Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans. His last exhibit, a nearly six-hour video projection entitled Sade for Sade’s Sake, was shown in 2009 at the Venice Biennale and at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York.
Recently, he’s turned his attention away from exhibitions and toward publishing books, starting one of the first, and certainly the most lewd, houses devoted solely to artistic e-books. Among the projects is a series of fonts Chan made in conjunction with his Sade exhibition that transform any piece of writing into a filthy text. He’s been applying the fonts to Plato and John Maynard Keynes.
We spoke twice in his three-room studio, eating almonds and stale sour candy.
THE BELIEVER: Retirement seems to be a hip move. People have been talking about Peter Nadin, who had his first show in decades after starting his own farm upstate. Is that part of your plan?
PAUL CHAN: There is no plan. I wanted to do nothing in particular, exhibition-wise. The old work gets shown. I’ve turned down most opportunities to do anything, because I wanted more than anything else the thing one can never have enough of: time. It is of course wonderful and gratifying to have shows and exhibitions and to travel and partake in the excitement that makes contemporary art interesting. And then you realize that a carrot isn’t a carrot. A carrot is a stick.