Paul Chan, “The Bather’s Dilemma”

September 12th – October 19th, 2019
Greene Naftali is pleased to announce Paul Chan’s solo exhibition entitled The Bather’s Dilemma. This is his fourth solo exhibition at the gallery. The Bather’s Dilemma features a new series of works Chan calls “Bathers.” The Bathers belong to the genre of moving-image works pioneered by Chan that he calls “Breathers,” which debuted in his 2017 exhibition Rhi Anima at the gallery.
Artists have explored the theme of the “bather” throughout history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, artists like Cézanne and Matisse took up this motif to express evolving notions about the body, changing ideas about pleasure, one’s relationship to nature, and how the longing for the new (in art) potentially renews a broader and more inclusive understanding of what it means to live with or against societal changes. Chan takes up this age-old trope to redescribe the constellation of themes and ideas the “bather” embodies for what is turning out to be a dismal 21st century.
Like the Breathers, the Bathers are constructed out of nylon fabric and powered by specially modified industrial fans. Each bather was designed by Chan to animate solely by how the fabric “body” reacts to and against the air pressure from the fans. Combining knowledge and experience from fields as disparate as fashion, physics (specifically fluid dynamics), and sculpture, Chan’s novel technique creates aerodynamic forces like lift and drag within the internal structure of the body to harness the fans’ air flow in order to govern a bather’s movements.
In Phenus 1 (2019), the image of a shameless bathing figure displaying themself while holding a towel from behind is animated by two countervailing movements. The insistent swaying forward and backward of the jet-black body’s lower section is counterpoised against the undulating and gyrating motion of the upper section. The rocking motion in the lower section is achieved by air flow pushing against the two connected, slightly unequal tube-like shapes, which creates the imbalance (the fluid dynamical term is “turbulent flow”) necessary to generate the specific movement. The fabric shell that make up the upper section also determines the air flow. But here, there are three openings where air escapes (one in each of the “elbows” and one on the “back”). These openings act like “thrusters,” in effect pushing the upper section in three distinct directions. The curvature where the upper and lower sections meet induces more turbulence, essentially forcing the air to press against the upper section in many different directions. The white “towel” (with a specific weight of eight grams) acts as a counterweight, both exaggerating the movement generated by the air rushing out of the three openings and easing the transition of the body as it gestures rhythmically from one axis of direction to the next.
Katabasis (2019) sways from side to side as four bathers in various states of undress are connected at the arms, enabling air to enter and exit from any and all the figures. The lateral air flow traveling between the figures push and pull them into a particular ensemble of movements. Katabasis cycles from synchronic and ecstatic dancing to conflicting individual gestures to a state of homeostasis where all four figures are tensely, momentarily, still. This effectively imbues the work with the sense that the four bathers are either working together to travel in one direction, fighting amongst themselves about which way to go, or are too conflicted to move in any direction at all. The logo on the muscle shirt worn by the third figure (from the left) obliquely references part of their dilemma. Designed as an homage to the iconic Gold’s Gym logo, the image is encircled by a Latin phrase made famous by philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his work Leviathan – “Bellum omnium contra omnes,” which translates as “the war of all against all.” The word katabasis itself also expresses something like the uncertainty of where they (or we) ought to go. Katabasis is an ancient Greek term for either traveling towards a coast where water is, or a decent into Áïdēs, also known as the underworld.