I have been unkind to Paul Chan’s work in the past. Having encountered several of his sculptural and text-based works many years ago, I didn’t then discern the humour, curiosity and formal poetry that they demonstrated. While a consequence of my own critical failure, perhaps this was also a result of the limiting nature of the exhibition in which I had seen Chan’s work. Curatorially bound to specific formal and theoretical tropes – bibliophile, literary, objective, wittily conceptualist – by the nature of that display, his works were pushed into earnest and stilled forms of operation. A part of their instinct was lost to that show, and regretfully, to me.
The clichéd notion that after conceptual art and the readymade, apparently anything has the capacity to “look like art” (or even read like it), is something many post-conceptual artists exploit, often critically, and occasionally out of negligence. Yet few artists manage the rigour, flexibility and even freedom of Chan, who navigates various post-conceptual traps with intellect, humour and commitment. That this exhibition, celebrating the artist’s awarding of the Hugo Boss prize in 2014, sits beside On Kawara’s retrospective, ‘Silence’, particularly highlights Chan’s strength as an artist working after the likes of Kawara. Like Kawara, Chan manages to be everywhere and nowhere within his practice at once. Like Kawara, Chan deploys, utilises and frequently undermines the apparent objectivity of conceptual art, while also allowing the joy of studio production, experiment and self-disclosure to play out. Like Kawara’s, Chan’s practice binds itself around the artist himself, though without tipping into narcissism or the blinding assurances of authorship.
Perhaps with the last characteristic in mind, ‘Nonprojections for New Lovers’ may have presented Chan with something of a predicament. Staged to celebrate an award, this exhibition contributes to an institutional ‘branding’ of Chan as an artist of note, power and fame. Despite its moderate physical scale, the exhibition must therefore stand in for an encompassing representation of his current practice. Moreover, it must be a representation that justifies and perpetuates such admirable (and justified) recognition. Yet with cunning evasion and self-effacement, Chan responds by inverting the display’s central conceit. Partially removing himself from a front and center position, he builds the exhibition around the work of three other people: Andrea McGinty, Lilith Wes and Wednesday Black. Anchoring ‘Nonprojections for New Lovers’ is the launch of three erotic novels by the above writers. Cumulatively they represent the first books of the New Lovers series published by Chan’s imprint, ‘Badlands Unlimited’. Exhibited in a vitrine in the exhibition with various pages marked by sticky notes, the books are also to be found outside for perusal, and in the shop, and elsewhere beyond the museum for purchase. While novels written by others provide that slippery focus for Chan’s exhibition, that they are of the erotic genre uncannily recasts the sculptural works in a number of ways.
It would be wrong to see the overtly sexual in these works, though such a reading could be tangentially drawn from the billowing arms of ‘Tetra Gummi Phone’ (2014-15), and in the romantically facing projectors of the ‘Nonprojections’ works, along with the fact that one projector seems to ooze moisture onto a square piece of cardboard upon which it sits. To an extent, however, the works aren’t ‘adult’ enough for such readings to be comfortable. The ‘Nonprojections’ are assemblages of projectors plugged in to concrete-filled and worn-out shoes from which further wires emerge, sometimes forming a general shoe-to-wire-to-shoe loop, and sometimes ranging outwards to further cast-off shoes. Cumulatively and alone, these are overwhelmingly absurd and redundant objects. Little flashes from the projector’s bulbs indicate moving images, but neither darkness nor a screening surface allows us to see what they actually project. The shoes – lonely and odd – vibrate with a kind of sympathetic loss. These assemblages are sad and yet quietly ridiculous. Similarly, like the dancing inflatables that advertise a car wash or fast food eatery, the diaphanous body of ‘Tetra Gummi Phone’ is too mobile and voluptuously silly to be loaded with a serious kind of eroticism. But then, the erotica of this exhibition is subtler than that. This is the kind of art that operates like a sexual act motivated by desire rather than conception. It is akin to the irreligious act of consummation without actual creation. For the cause of gratification, of play, and of craft. For its own sake. For the pleasure of it. Oh! Indeed. For the most important pleasure of it.