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Video art, unplugged

A show at the Schaulager sees the New York-based artist Paul Chan rewiring his work

“The Argument” at the Shaulager: Antietam, 2013, Volumes, 2012, and Tablet 3, 2014. Photo: Tom Bisig, © Paul Chan

“When I committed to doing a show at the Schaulager, I knew I wanted to do something new. I didn’t want to go in the same direction,” says Paul Chan, the Hong Kong-born, New York-based artist who has taken over the museum’s galleries for his first major exhibition in five years. “I didn’t want to do projection work—the thing that has held my attention most the last ten years. The nature of the image has fundamentally changed. We see so many moving images on so many different screens today, I didn’t want to contribute more to it.”

Visitors can see a glimpse of this new work when they enter the museum, looking down from the main floor into the lower level. They are not the video-based works that Chan is known for (although those will be found in the ground floor galleries) but an installation of sprawling electrical cords, a wall of paintings on book covers, a stone table covered in moss. As Chan explains it, these sculptural works are a progression for him, achieved through a process of regression. “Some people work by moving forward. Maybe the simplest way I went forward was by going backwards,” he says. Since much of his early digitally animated work is shown as projections on screens or on gallery walls and floors, to move beyond this Chan asked himself, “What comes before the projectors? It’s the cord, the raw electricity that projects the image.”

Some live, some dead

The result is a series of electrical cord works Chan calls “The argument”. Some cords plug into sockets; some plug into shoes, boxes, chairs; some dangle from the wall in loose nets. The museum describes these works like the “thread of Ariadne that provides orientation in the Minotaur’s labyrinth”. Chan calls them “mind drawings”. “Physically,” he says “they started by me containing two different things, like two trash cans.” The cords slither through galleries, drape across frames. “The feeling of entanglement is frankly about sex, and all that sex entails.”

Some of the cords are live and can carry a charge, while some are dead and do not conduct electricity; similarly, Chan says, some of the objects connected to the cords are live and dead—though how a shoe can be live or dead he wouldn’t elaborate. “That’s the magic of what I do.”

Back to square one

To take a cue from the artist and start by going backwards, the exhibition opens with some of Chan’s earliest videos, on view in the ground floor. These include Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-03 and My birds... trash... the future, 2004, two cartoon-coloured computer animations of ecstasy and destruction. There is also work from his series “The 7 Lights”, shadowy projections that angle across the gallery floor.

Chan says that when approaching these works, he thought about the poet John Berryman, who said he was learning to live in history. “I’m very proud and pleased with what I’ve done in the past. I was very happy to see it,” he says, but “because the Schaulager is such a unique place, there was no responsibility to treat things with ­dignity… You can overlap works, you can place them out of order. It was an incredibly freeing way to do it.”

Instead of a straightforward chronology, the exhibition is organised “more in an associated order”, so works from different series share a gallery if they have a similar context. For example, pieces that are about social issues, such as his performance of “Waiting for Godot” in post-Katrina New Orleans, 2007, and his preparatory studies for the post-apoclyptic My birds..., are displayed in the same room. The aim is to create an experience for the visitor, not a narrative of the artist’s career. “The last thing I wanted to do is set the story straight,” he says.

Bibliophile: the artist as publisher

Text has always had a large presence in Paul Chan’s practice, and he could be considered as much a writer, a poet or a theorist as he could an artist. Most recently, he’s also taken on the role of publisher. As part of the exhibition, the Schaulager and the Laurenz Foundation has worked with Chan’s own company, Badlands Unlimited, to publish three books. As well as an exhibition catalogue, which Chan describes as “a source book” of images that inspired the works in the show, there is a book of selected essays written by the artist over the past 14 years, for lectures and publications such as Artforum.

The last book, New New Testament, is an extension of his work Volumes, which was shown partially in Documenta in 2012 but appears in full for the first time at the Schaulager. For this project, Chan tore out the pages of books—ones he says he has never read—and used the covers as canvases for small paintings. The publication, clad in a fittingly Biblical blue, not only documents all 1,005 of the book paintings, it also includes replacement texts that Chan wrote for the now-empty tomes. “The New New Testament is the final manifestation of the work,” he says. Copies are installed along the walkway above the installation, so visitors can try to match the painted covers with their associated texts. “It’s almost like bird-watching in a way.”

“Paul Chan—Selected Works” is at the Schaulager, Basel, until 19 October

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