Paul Chan is a Hong Kong-born, Nebraska-raised artist who currently lives in New York City. His work stretches from political activism through photojournalism and video, to animation and drawing. He’s often known to bring two foreign objects together, presenting the dualities of life in the 21st century.
The following is a conversation between Chan and Cortright.
Petra, your new show has a lot of elements I’ve never seen much of in your work. Like real things…I mean, the videos and digital pieces are real but not like ‘flag’ real or ‘aluminum’ real. How was it working for real? I wanted to play around with new materials. I really love that the core of the work is just a file. There are infinite ways that files can be presented. In my work I like to think of things as being infinite, having endless resources. There is a real freedom with that, but because there are so many options I need to cut all the infinite resources with some structure, so then I am interested in default, pre-made things I find on the internet—base images, software.
I like to use things available. If you customize everything, it’s so tiring.
I don’t want to worry about every detail but I also want to be able to control any detail if I want to. The nice thing about doing these paintings on aluminum or silk is that once things leave the digital realm, I have no control—I can’t make these things with my own hands, but that is why it’s so nice—to be able to go beyond what you can do as just one person and produce beautiful things with the help of professionals. I really love working by myself but I love that I started working with so many new people in this last year. This year I truly started doing a lot of new projects like the paintings on aluminum and the flags. I’m doing a project with MOCAtv that is still in progress that I shot at YouTube Studios. I worked with a six-week-old puppy. I went to Petco and made custom dog ID tags for the pup to wear in the video—the ones you had at the Badlands booth at NYABF [NY Art Book Fair] at P.S.1.
There’s a tawdry quality about the silk hanging works, like they’re a cross between the Shroud of Turin and late night ‘Skinemax’ movies on cable. Can you talk a little about your uncanny ability to walk that line between tawdry and enigmatic? I like to make things that are many things at once, beautiful, funny, weird, light, dark, et cetera…If I try to make something “beautiful” it will only look funny to me. If I try to make something “funny” it might be sad or beautiful. When I don’t try and I make something that I want to make, guided by internal GPS, and just go wherever that points to, then somehow the final product will have everything at once. I listen to my guardian art-angel.
Do you watch a lot of cable? I love TV. I watch so much TV. I love talking to other people who watch a lot of TV/movies. I don’t think it’s a waste of time at all to watch a lot of TV. I think that it helps me work. I get a lot of ideas from watching things. I also get a chance to take a break from thinking about work. It’s a nice form because I feel like somehow I am working subconsciously but I get a conscious rest from working.
What do you watch, actually? The sky? Netflix? Netflix, HBO, Project Free TV, Pirate Bay/uTorrent, Sunday football, movies at the Disneyland-style shopping mall places in L.A.—best place to watch blockbusters: the movie theater in my neighborhood in Highland Park that has $4 movies Tuesday/Wednesday, and huge buckets of popcorn, and everyone has their babies and talks during the movie and yells. It’s like watching a movie in a huge living room. I watch opossums in the backyard, and squirrels, and raccoons, and wild parrots, and cats—I watch my two Chihuahuas all day long, eat, sleep, breathe. Also I do watch the sky. I have an app on my phone to see the names of the stars. I love being a passenger in a car because I love to watch things out the window. I watch everything. I love to watch everything.
The flags are interesting. There is, of course, a long tradition of flag making: Jasper Johns to state the obvious example. But also Bernadette Corporation, Guyton/Walker. Didn’t Joseph Beuys make flags? Why flags? I wanted to make flags for a while—I kept thinking about why I wanted to make flags. Originally, for the show at Preteen [Gallery], I had wanted to make silk flags but then they sort of ended up a different thing. But that was the idea originally. Then I remembered that a lot of work involves using pre-made default effects, and it seemed like flags were a physical extension of that. I think of flags as default things—they are a symbol. I like that they have a certain element of pride and strength. I just wanted to represent.
It’s striking to me that the videos are so small in comparison to the aluminum paintings. Do you consider them paintings? Did painting on aluminum give you a feel for paint that you didn’t get from, say, painting on canvas? Or cats? I don’t paint on the aluminum. I paint in Photoshop! IRL painting is very slow and boring! I tried to do it once—I only lasted four hours and then said, ‘This is dumb,’ and went back over to my computer. Everything in the show is a different size, shape, material/medium. Five different categories—flags, silk, aluminum, webcam videos, flash animations. The webcam videos were nice to have at a smaller size; they’re more intimate and that size is closer to their natural state. People watch them on YouTube and in some way that is their natural habitat now.
The paintings feel like Bonnard in RGB mode. Can you talk a little about the color palette? It’s so particular but I don’t know why. Color is another thing that falls under the control of my li’l guardian art-angel. I don’t ask, I just know. I pick a color that I like, and then I pick another color that I like. It’s very fun.
The stripper works are a disinterested delight to watch. What do you think it is that makes them so? The strippers are mysteriously beautiful, funny, weird, light, dark, et cetera. I like how putting them into a fantasy environment de-fantisizes them. 1 + 1 = 0.
By the way, when you text me, you text 20 messages in a row sometimes. And some of the messages are just random strings of numbers and letters. Should I be saving those? I can’t believe you are asking—of course you have to save them! HELL_TREE was made from that kind of nonsense!