PRINT December 2017

Hal Foster

Paul Chan, Pentasophia (or Le bonheur de vivre dans la catastrophe du monde occidental) (detail), 2016, nylon, metal, concrete, shoes, fans, paper. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

FOR PAUL CHAN, “art is a lawless proposition.” “The telos of artistic form,” he argues, is a “spirit of irreconcilability.”1 As Chan well knows, this principle runs counter to traditional ideas of art as the mastering of composition and composure. He wants this irreconcilability because it keeps artistic form open and dynamic, and because this making and unmaking of the object might inspire a similar movement in the subject. Or so Chan believes: A lawless proposition is also a hopeful one.

Chan placed open and dynamic forms throughout Greene Naftali in March, a month when the Trump catastrophe had fully sunk in. The title of the show, “Rhi Anima,” played on the Aristotelian treatise De Anima, which proposes that “knowledge is for that which moves by that which moves.” Chan intended his pieces, which he calls “breathers,” to evoke this “relationship between life (bios), consciousness or spirit (anima), and movement,” as taken up by “a number of classical philosophers, from Heraclitus onward,” some of whom he called out in his titles. Shaped from nylon and anchored with concrete and wood, these ghostly figures, some black, some white, were roiled by fans placed beneath them. With tubes for torsos and limbs, and hoods for heads, the breathers waved and writhed, upright and upside down, alone and in groups, at once bound and free. Sometimes they appeared to dance as if possessed, and sometimes to gesture compulsively, though what they signaled shifted as they did—a command, a cringe, a salute, a prayer? At first they looked like human figures and then like garbage bags caught in the wind. It was hard to shake the feeling that they were people become refuse, life stripped bare, or, conversely, the cast-out reanimated by fear and loathing, lumpenproles eager for the next fascist call to arms.

Paul Chan, Baigneurs sans rien, 2017, nylon, fans, fabric. Installation view. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

Over the past few years, another classical character has preoccupied Chan: Odysseus, whom Homer describes as polutropos, often translated as “wily.” Chan advocates for Odysseus, who was disparaged by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) as the first homo oeconomicus. The artist prizes his cunning in particular, which he opposes to the conning prevalent in the art world: Odysseus “survives and endures by the grace of what he knows and what he is capable of imagining and creating. Like an artist.” “Nothing quickens the heart like cunning,” Chan adds. “I like paradox. I need it.” Polutropia literally means “many twists and turns,” which the breathers in “Rhi Anima” act out literally, too. But the word might also point to a kind of cunning that uses multiple tropes in a critical performance of paradox, one that cuts against official ways of thinking (doxa). That is what “Rhi Anima” staged for me.

Take the multivalence of breathers. For Chan, the word evokes how pneuma—ancient Greek for breath—“‘animates’ the living in spirit and in form.” In contemporary America, however, it also conjures the opposite, the desperate plea of Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” and all others whose spirits are choked, waterboarded, unjustly jailed or deported, run over, or simply shot. These breathers become spectral, even undead, for the rest of us. At the same time, in a further twist, the breathers arrayed in groups appeared to breathe together, which (a friend reminded me) is the etymology of “conspire”; in this respect they seemed cunning as well as uncanny. Such polutropia extended to the associations prompted by the breathers, which cross cultural lines, from the rituals of the KKK (a few titles called out the GOP) to the cartoons of Casper the Friendly Ghost, with the covens of Goya and the costumes of Halloween in between.

Paul Chan, Le baigneur 1, 2016, nylon, fan, concrete, shoes, cords. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

This is to say that Chan tapped into the iconicity of his spectral breathers. Like the torn hoodie that David Hammons first hung on a wall in 1993, this iconicity has an anachronic life that allows the image, never fixed in meaning, to be reanimated by each present that conjures it up. (Thus do some symbols remain potent and mnemonic today, even in a media ecology that is otherwise dispersive and amnesiac.) Amateur classicist that he is, Chan calls these anachronic images “kairological artworks” (kairos is time that is decisive, even epiphanic, as opposed to the sequential time of chronos). “They embody a desperate immanence, as if what is given is not good enough but will have to do,” Chan writes. “They seize time the way a beat holds a song, to evoke the vertiginous feeling of seeing something emerge by being made and unmade at the same instant. They last as experiences by not staying whole as forms.”

Paul Chan, Pillowsophia (after Ghostface), 2016, nylon, wood, concrete, shoes, fans. Installation view, 2017.

Freud once speculated about the antithetical meanings embedded in primal words, and often there is a similar volatility in anachronic images. “Rhi Anima” tapped into this energy, too, in a way that allowed us to reflect, early in the regime, on the awful absurdity of Trumpism, how it is both ridiculous and horrific, cartoonish and cataclysmic. Once we had Bush kitsch—yellow ribbons and decals of towers wrapped in flags—and today we have Trump kitsch; only, according to the new law that every rightist president outdoes the one before him, it is even worse: private jets for cabinet members and tiki torches for supremacists in the streets. In the first years of the Reagan era, Saul Friedländer was prompted to reflect on the “aesthetic frisson” created by Nazi juxtapositions of kitsch and death (Goebbels called his own toxic cocktail “a melodramatic song on top of a macabre dance”). For Friedländer, this frisson animated “a particular kind of bondage nourished by the simultaneous desires for absolute submission and total freedom.”2 Clearly this poltergeist is back, and with his breathers Chan aimed to at once represent it, parody it (or to paradoxify it), and detourn it (Breathers of the world, conspire!). He even held out for love among the ruins; one circle of breathers recalled the dancers of Matisse, and underscored the allusion with its subtitle: Le bonheur de vivre dans la catastrophe du monde occidental. “To make something by subjecting it to the same forces that make life unlivable,” Chan says, “and to do it as if its aesthetic life depends on it, charges what is made with an incalculable urgency.” In a very bleak moment, “Rhi Anima” reanimated this spirit of irreconcilability.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University. In 2018, he will deliver the A. W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts at the national gallery of art in Washington, DC.


1. Quotations of Chan are drawn from his Selected Writings 2000–2014 (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2014); his press release for “Rhi Anima” (2017); a new translation of the Platonic dialogue Hippias Minor, introduced by him (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2015); and a conversation between him and the classicist Brooke Holmes in Liquid Antiquity, ed. Brooke Holmes and Karen Marta (Athens: Deste Foundation, 2017).

2. Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, trans. Thomas Weyr(New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 19. On submission and freedom today, see my “Père Trump,” October, no. 159 (Winter 2017): 3–6.