Still from Paul Chan’s Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–2003, digital-video projection, color, sound, 17 minutes 20 seconds.

Still from Paul Chan’s Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–2003, digital-video projection, color, sound, 17 minutes 20 seconds.

Paul Chan

Still from Paul Chan’s Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–2003, digital-video projection, color, sound, 17 minutes 20 seconds.

AFTER A SERIES of increasingly high-profile solo exhibitions between 2003 and 2009, Paul Chan took a hiatus of sorts from the world of gallery and museum exhibitions to focus instead on writing and on his publishing imprint, Badlands Unlimited. This summer, Chan emphatically returned to public view with an exhibition that—despite its understated subtitle, “Selected Works”—looked and felt very much like a full-dress midcareer retrospective. Installed in twenty-four discrete spaces spread across Schaulager’s two main floors, and accompanied by an ambitious screening program of single-channel videos, “Selected Works” left few stones unturned. Putting on view nearly every significant piece the artist has created between 2000 and the present, the exhibition provided a welcome—if overdue—opportunity to take stock of Chan’s restless, protean oeuvre.

The overhead view of more recent sculptures and installations in Schaulager’s immense atrium notwithstanding, the show opened with the body of work that brought Chan to broad attention a decade ago. The first major piece viewers encountered was the extra-wide-format digital video Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–2003. Projected on both sides of a screen that hung in the center of the gallery, Chan’s work pre-sents the unlikely mash-up of the famously reclusive Chicago “outsider” artist and the nineteenth-century French social theorist, set to a sound track of Jay-Z and Bach. Packed with pop-cultural references yet strangely unmoored from any specific time and place, the looped video, with its perpetually oscillating visions of paradise and apocalypse, has lost none of its weird, hallucinatory power in the decade since it was first exhibited. The same is true of My birds . . . trash . . . the future, 2004. Created after the US-led invasion of Iraq and around the time of George W. Bush’s reelection, My birds trades Happiness’s verdant landscape for a barren wasteland dominated by an enormous dead tree populated by the so-called baleful fowl described in the book of Leviticus. Despite a sound track, cast of characters, and accumulation of cultural references that ground the piece firmly in the time of its production, My birds—like its most obvious reference points, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Goya’s Disasters of War—manages to comment on but also transcend its immediate historical context. In part because it was already so palpably lo-fi even when it was first shown, and in part due to its high degree of formal experimentation, Chan’s particular form of digital rendering in these works remains visually unique and surprisingly undated. If anything, its associations with the look of early video games and cartoons such as South Park have become less prominent over the years. Although tucked away in a cul-de-sac gallery, My birds confirmed its status as among the most powerful and enduring works (by any artist) of that era.

Looking back, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Chan’s remarkable “preretirement” career overlaps almost exactly with the eight years of the second Bush administration. The mood of Chan’s works from this period—from the ambivalence of Happiness and the growing sense of unease, even dread, of My birds and “The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007, through the righteous anger of his site-specific theatrical production Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007—reflects an increasing frustration with the injustices of the world and the apparent impotence of both art and politics to effect any meaningful change. This frustration is, I think, the crux of Sade for Sade’s sake, 2009, the artist’s last major project before his voluntary hiatus. In an excerpt from Chan’s 2010 artist’s book The essential and incomplete Sade for Sade’s sake, reprinted in the excellent volume of the artist’s collected writings published on the occasion of the exhibition, Chan reminds us that while “today we remember [Sade] mainly as a pornographer and a libertine philosopher . . . Sade’s masterpiece, The 120 Days of Sodom, is a novel about war profiteers.” Apart from the clear references to Abu Ghraib and other horrific acts of abuse and humiliation presumably carried out in secret military prisons around the world, the most striking aspect of Sade for Sade’s sake is how unerotic, ungenerative, and even boring the scenes it depicts are. Bodies—or, rather, schematic silhouettes of bodies—endlessly sucking and fucking, coupling and uncoupling. No release, no liberation, just unceasing repetition.

One area in which Chan has remained consistently engagé is in his publishing projects. Among the many recent publications on view was On Democracy by Saddam Hussein. Published by Badlands Unlimited in 2012, this remarkable book contains three speeches delivered by Hussein in the late 1970s while the erstwhile Iraqi dictator was the country’s vice president, along with new essays and a selection of Chan’s drawings and collages. As Chan has suggested, there is a wonderful perversity to the project. By taking the writings of this notoriously undemocratic historical figure as a point of departure for a reflection on the nature of democracy today, the book asks its reader to mentally hold in suspension at least two, if not more, incommensurate ideological systems. In so doing, it poses important questions, about not only the political history of Iraq but also the blind spots and internal contradictions that haunt all experiments in democratic government, including our own.

Several of the drawings that punctuate On Democracy were also on view in Basel. Untitled, 2006, presents an aerial view of two buildings, the concentric rings of landscaped parkland visible between them. It is a composition that recalls at once the early-twentieth-century photographic experiments of Aleksandr Rodchenko or László Moholy-Nagy and the all too familiar contemporary view from the camera eye of a military drone. Hung beside it, The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one, 2005, depicts a youthful Hussein, dressed in classic revolutionary style in beret and epaulets, the drawing’s neutral background interrupted by a diagonal field of white, akin to an errant Suprematist redaction mark. Like the book in which they appear, these drawings subtly highlight a productive tension between past and present, between utopian visions and their subversion and co-optation in the service of power.

THE EXHIBITION presented the physical divide between the building’s two levels as analogous to the philosophical or spiritual separation between heaven and earth, or, as Daniel Birnbaum, citing Chan, suggests in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, between the atemporal, “other-worldly” space of Platonic speculation above and the bluntly factual, insistently material world of everyday temporality below. As the works in the show demonstrate, however, the metaphoric membrane between these two spheres is perhaps a bit more porous (surely Waiting for Godot in New Orleans and Sade for Sade’s sake can each be understood as operating in both registers), and the physical policing of its border meant that the portion of the show on the upper floor was crowded into a warren of too-small spaces that did few favors for the impressive works they contained. (The haunting beauty of the “Lights” undoubtedly suffered the most in this regard.) By contrast, the newer and more “visually meager” (to borrow Birnbaum’s description) works on the lower level struggled to fill the vast spaces they occupied.

Despite their contemporaneousness with the momentous, and sometimes maddeningly familiar, events of recent years—the Arab Spring, the escalating civil war in Syria, Citizens United, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, and climatological disasters around the globe, to name only a few—the most recent artworks in the exhibition were surprisingly wan, lifeless affairs. The “Arguments,” 2012–, variously sized accumulations of concrete-filled shoes interconnected by electrical cords, stood as inert illustrations of networks and flows of communication and power. Another new series, “Nonprojections,” 2013–, added one or more video projectors to these elements with more interesting, if not necessarily “satisfying,” results. In these works, the projectors are clearly “on”—one can see the glow of their bulbs and indicator lights, hear the sound of their cooling fans—but no discernible image is present. Even the “blank” white rectangle of a historical precursor such as Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film, 1962–64, is withheld, as the projector’s beam is negated by the brightly lit space and conspicuous lack of anything resembling a screen. Only by looking directly into the projector’s lens can one make out the barely perceptible hint of an image. In their double refusal of both image and screen, the “Nonprojections” stand in stark contrast to the visual and aural density of Happiness and My birds as well as to the spatial expansiveness of the“Lights.”

Asked recently about the differing motivations behind his writing and his art, Chan stated, “I am not at all sure what I achieve in my writing. I am pretty sure nothing much is achieved in the art.” Indeed, Chan’s newest works literalize a sense of impotence, even resignation, regarding art’s transformative potential. As artworks, the “Nonprojections” are almost willfully unsuccessful. Like Bartleby, or the Occupy movement for whom Melville’s scrivener became such an important symbol, these works stage what amounts to an aesthetic strike. Despite the viewer’s frustration, perhaps such a move is not entirely unjustified. In a world where anything and everything—from the smartphones in our pockets to the sides of entire buildings—can be transformed into a conduit for a seemingly infinite flow of visual content, the “Nonprojections” stubbornly refuse to comply. And so, as their nonfunctioning apparatuses whir away in futility like the technological mirrors of the anonymous bodies in Sade for Sade’s sake, the image itself is reduced—at least for now—to the faintest flickering of memory.

Jacob Proctor is curator of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, where he is also a lecturer in the division of the humanities.