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Paul Chan’s mischievous wordsmithing and hallucinatory art making at Morris Gallery

Roberta chats with Paul Chan about his installation, "Pillowsophia," at PAFA's Morris Gallery. The haunting piece is a hollow hooded figure made of black nylon placed high against a wall. In continuous motion from wind blown into its cavity by a powerful and noisy industrial fan, the piece is engineered and stitched in such a way that it dances what seems like an ecstatic death dance. A response to the times, which are filled with violence against black men, the piece is powerful and emotionally moving.


Paul Chan’s “Pillowsophia” opened quietly in the Morris Gallery of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, no public opening, no fanfare.  But it’s anything but a quiet piece.  The kinetic work, a black hooded figure in continuous movement is literally loud due to the grinding motor of the industrial fan blowing into the hollow balloon-like form.  But beyond that, the mesmerizing figure, whose arms occasionally get pinned to the wall in a gesture that evokes the crucified Christ (or more urgently someone saying “Don’t shoot,”), speaks loudly about black men in hoodies and the prejudice and acts of violence against them. Also on view in the Morris Gallery is Chan and colleagues’ poem, “New No’s” published by him under his Bandlands Unlimited imprint, which pushes back in no uncertain terms against racism, fascism, and all forms of discrimination.  Chan’s work has always been fueled by contemporary issues and a belief in the importance of community and action. The Interview with Paul Chan took place at PAFA March 20, 2017. “Pillowsophia,”, which I believe should be a PAFA purchase, is up to May 28 in the Morris Gallery.

Artblog – What does the title “Pillowsophia” come from?
Paul Chan – Philosophy

A – Ah, yes, wordplay.  I remember Mari Shaw talking about your wordplay in her articles. I don’t know if you read them.  (Read Mari’s four posts about Chan at her author page – scroll down a bit to see them).
PC – Yes I did

A – Talk about your poem, “New No’s”
PC – It was written a week after the election. We wrote it together.
A – Who’s we?
PC – Badlands publishers, three of us, plus me

A – Your Badlands Unlimited publishing consortium is online only, right? That’s how people get your books?
PC – No, we have a retail space…YP 99 cents and up. It’s in our building. I asked Mr. and Mrs. Y can we sell our books. They agreed. They get a cut.

A – Talk about the hoodie in Pillowsophia.
P – The hoodie is part of the times…being a spirit is part of the times.

A – This work is not video.  Much of your previous work is video or media projections.
P – I can’t look at screens anymore. I’m too old. I wanted to do animated movement…not on a screen.

A – Are you a dancer? The piece is dancer-ly, feels choreographed.
P – (looking hard at Artblog) I respect dance and choreography… I haven’t shown in a gallery in 8 years. You should see the show at Greene Naftali. (closed April 15) It has “klan kids” Don J and Eric (Trumps kids). That’s what we call them.

A – How did you figure out the figure’s movement?
P – It’s physics and fluid dynamics…we asked MIT. They couldn’t help. It was trial and error…It’s making clothes for spirits. It’s folk science. We learned how to sew, we learned physics. We spent 2 weeks finding the right-weight string for the hoodie. If we had the wrong weight it (the movement) wouldn’t work. Do you see the crescent on top of hoodie? The air goes up in there (and gets trapped) and that’s how it works…Look, do you see that? (Every so often the figure gets pinned to the wall with arms outstretched, like a Christ crucified. They figured all that out, via folk science and sewing – with patterns and tucks and seams and trial and error.)

A – How about the shoes. You use a lot of shoes in your works.
P – I fill them with concrete and they conduct (electricity). (He’s got electrical plugs in the shoes) Also it’s a way to suggest a human being…I guess I have a shoe fetish. I love shoes (smiles).

PAUL CHAN – RHI ANIMA, Greene Naftali Gallery, ended April 15, 2017. Badlands Unlimited is Chan’s imprint, under which the poem, “New No’s” was published, proceeds of which go entirely to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. “New No’s is a poem by Badlands Unlimited written after the election of Donald J. Trump and acts as a declaration against the drift of American society toward what is most un-American. It was included in The New York Times’ Best Art of 2016 List. Bandlands Unlimited books are available at the Y.P. 99C and up store, which is on the first floor of the building the publishing company is in.  The poem New No’s is available locally at Ulises.