New York

Paul Chan

Greene Naftali

The orgy was already in full swing when I arrived at “Sade for Sade’s sake,” a predictably serious-minded if surprisingly dry survey of recent work by Paul Chan inspired by the eighteenth-century libertine author and philosopher. Elements of Chan’s project—a sprawling exploration, grounded in the Marquis de Sade’s work and routed through contemporary sociopolitics, of sexuality, violence, and liberty; of the relation of the body to language and the individual to the law—have been shown at the Venice Biennale and Chicago’s Renaissance Society. But this show, Chan’s second solo at Greene Naftali, found the artist in summary mode, and included a whole constellation of approaches orbiting around the marquis: more than fifty works on paper executed in ink and in pencil (some further adapted within sculptural scenarios), an ancillary typographic component, and, anchoring it all, the digital projection from which the exhibition took its name, a five-hour-and-forty-five-minute marathon of debauched shadow play.

Like Chan’s 2005–2007 installation The 7 Lights, Sade for Sade’s sake, 2009, was projected onto “real” space, here a backdrop of shuttered windowpanes, pipes, and radiators, an idiosyncratic native architectural environment that allowed for the kind of dialogue the artist regularly courts between the physical facts of a given place and the spectral elements that appear in his projections. Other than marionette-style “actors,” in Sade . . . these also include passages of free-floating rectangles, like a disassembled Josef Albers, that afford occasional relief from the frantic humping (as well as the work’s only moments of color), and a variety of more familiar architectural silhouettes whose contours suggest at once a devotional environment and the confines of the marquis’s infamous chateau, a welcome bit of spatio-narrative context for the video projection’s otherwise interchangeable, affectless characters. Trembling as they frantically go about their business over and over and over again, the anonymous naked figures—all bellies and breasts and twitching cocks—seem suspended somewhere between ecstasy and terror, their movements equally evocative of libidinous quivering and cowering dread while they couple and recouple, often in the presence of gesticulating figures that regularly intervene, as narrators or perhaps givers of laws, in the queasily erotic landscape.

Given the rich vein of political critique that runs through Chan’s work, it’s hardly a stretch to read the projection in the context not only of licentiousness but also of the modes of physical and psychological control exercised by institutions (juridical, religious, military, etc.) over the individual. The essential role of language in such processes was taken up in the show’s other major element, a series of large ink-on-paper pieces that detail typographic fonts developed by the artist (and offered as free downloads from his personal website). Each set links the letters of the alphabet to different fragments of erotic and/or violent speech—some derived from Sade’s characters (Juliette, Justine, Narcisse), some from literature or “science” (Gertrude Stein, Richard von Krafft-Ebing), and some from contemporary politics (George W. Bush)—allowing for endlessly recombinant forms of obscenity. Unlike the other major suite of drawings on view (controlled, delicate works that render sexualized bodies in the manner of linear Hans Bellmer dolls), these pieces, with their casual drips, errors, and erasures, and their oddly stagy presentation on pairs of men’s and women’s shoes, read like a distraught elegy for things absent and hopelessly contingent: missing technologies, plundered source material, and, especially, omitted bodies.

Though no doubt conscious, the lack of any tangible corporeality in the show lent it a distinctly non-Sadean sense of dispassion, a kind of unbridgeably distanced register that heightened the viewer’s desire for some real meat on the bones of Chan’s theoretical corpus. So pervasive was this absence that when at one point during my visit the quiet of the otherwise empty galleries was suddenly broken by a series of loud metallic clanks, I came rushing around the corner, thinking the hammering might signal the emergence of “real life” from among the abstractions of the projection. As I started making my way toward the wall, into the space of the light, a glint on the floor caught my eye. Something was spreading along the baseboard, a slick patch forming as liquid dribbled from the radiator pipes—they were hot, and they were leaking.

Jeffrey Kastner