Odysseus and the Bathers: Paul Chan

Paul Chan, Sam Thorne and Francesco Tenaglia in conversation


Paul Chan and curator Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, discuss Chan’s exhibition Odysseus and the Bathers. The show is commissioned and presented by NEON, and introduces Bathers, a new and recent occurrence in a larger body of work (the Breathers series) that the artist began in 2013. These kinetic, anthropomorphic sculptures are made of nylon shells and engineered to produce precise, repetitive movements animated by modified industrial fans. Chan first presented the fabric figures after a hiatus in which he detached himself from art making and founded Badlands Unlimited publishing house. The new project, held at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, centers on the term “polytropos,” used to describe Odysseus as “infinitely cunning” in Stephen Mitchell’s 2011 translation of The Odyssey. Here, the artist discusses “cheating” ways to produce animations without using screens, representations of bathers in the history of art, and his long-standing interest in philosophy. 


Francesco Tenaglia: Tell me about the idea for the show.

Paul Chan: I met Sam Thorne and NEON Foundation director Elina Kountouri earlier this year in New York. They visited me at my publishing house, Badlands Unlimited, and we talked for quite some time.

Sam Thorne: We actually talked about everything but Paul’s work— about education, art criticism, and publishing. Trump too.

PC: And after that, we had a show—just like that.

ST: To jump back a bit, I’d seen a book that Paul had published several years ago, a new translation of Hippias Minor, by Plato, for which he’d written a long essay as a foreword. When Paul and I first spoke, we talked a lot about the Athens context. While I knew that he was developing his Breathers series, I hadn’t realized the extent to which this thinking had become entangled with his reading of the Odyssey.

FT: The protagonists of the exhibition are the Bathers (2018–), part of the Breathers series (2014–) you used on other occasions. They are moving sculptures: figures made of fabric and moved by air produced from industrial fans. Would you talk a little bit about these sculptures?

PC: Someone recently coined the phrase “peak screen,” meaning that we’ve reached a stage where screens dominate our social lives so much that we’ve become fatigued by them. Even the companies that make them, like Apple or Google or Samsung, know that the profits from TVs and smartphones have plateaued. That’s partly why there’s been such a push for audio assistants like Siri and Alexa. Corporations know we’ve become so fatigued from looking at a screen that we’ll no longer purchase devices. I got that fatigue six or seven years ago. One of the reasons I stopped making art was because I had to use screens for making moving-image works for video projection, and I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. I first stopped making work, and then when I started again, I didn’t make any screen works. How was I going to continue making work if I could no longer bear to look at the form that I historically used? The Breathers are my solution. It took around four years of research and development to figure out how much control I had of these animations. I wanted to control the movement of these works as nimbly as I could control the animations when I was working on a computer.

FT: By designing the fabric of the sculptures?

PC: Simply by the air pressure, the shape of the shell, the weight, and all the different ways that I can manipulate the air pressure inside the body.

FT: Does the air relate to the idea of soul in some sense?

PC: In ancient Greek philosophy, thinking was connected to talking, to breathing, and to bios, or life and spirit. It’s certainly part of the ferment of the philosophical lineage here to consider how Aristotle’s understanding of the soul is related to breathing. It’s a rich constellation of ideas. There is also a personal angle to all this. I have asthma, and it’s hard for me to breathe sometimes, so I’m very acutely aware of air. I also realize now that when I talk to the press, all I talk about are my ailments…

ST: Usually you complain about shortsightedness and asthma.

PC: I think I’m just subliminally asking for a doctor. Are you a doctor?

FT: No, unfortunately I’m not.

PC: Do you know anyone? You know. Doctors?

FT: I can try something, but nothing is guaranteed.

PC: The work also has this relationship to moving images. They are three-dimensional, but they also have very little in terms of material and weight. These works are very light on their feet, and they offer me an arena to compose movement without depending on the screen.

FT: Animations without doing actual animations, out of the frame.

PC: Exactly. The Bathers are a subset of the Breathers, smaller than the ones that I made last year. In a way, they’re more intimate. They’re softer. Also, I’ve made some suits for them, so I clothe them. I love making bikinis.

ST: And string vests.

PC: Anything trashy.

FT: A point of departure with the show is the idea of “super-cunning,” a translation of the ancient Greek word that defined Odysseus in Homer: polytropos.

ST: What is the word in Italian?

FT: Something along the lines of “multiformed.” The idea of cunning is the connective tissue, in a sense, that allows Odysseus in The Odyssey to cheat his own fate. I think part of what you’re describing here is a way to ask how you (as an artist, as a publisher) cheat your own destiny, right? Or find other ways for it to become multiform?

PC: Yes, to not be drunk on your own authority and to know that you can give yourself choices when none are evident or given. Odysseus does this, I think.

FT: And the last sculpture in the show is the man himself.

PC: Maybe? I don’t know. Some days, I think it’s Marge Simpson.

ST: Not Bart Simpson?

PC: I think it’s Marge.

FT: It looks more like Marge with a hat.

PC: But without the blue hair.

FT: It’s interesting that you have these nicknames for them.

PC: Oh yes, many names. One is called Bender, but then it’s also Penelope. So they have these nicknames that refer to their glitchy movements, but then in the context of this, there’s another narrative: they’re shifting.

FT: In the last piece of the show, Odysseus seems to be trapped by the glass case. He is almost ridiculed, like when Calypso found him crying on the island you refer to in your article published for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Has he temporarily lost his tactical qualities? Has he been conned himself?

PC: Hard to say. However, it’s important to remember that Odysseus’s polytropos doesn’t make him impervious to suffering or misfortune. One only cheats fate for so long. Let’s say it this way: the arc of cunning may be long, but it bends toward logos.

FT: How do the works relate to the history of bathers in painting?

PC: The most salient memory I have is realizing that, in the great paintings of bathers, the bathers typically have white towels.

FT: Sorry?

PC: They tend to all have white towels! This is the class dimension to those paintings. White towels were visual cues for notions of purity and cleaniness typically associated with the one percent. So for me. even putting colors on the towels I was making along with the Bathers were already somehow a step in the right direction. I think it’s odd—and you’re right about it being odd—that I would use the bathers motif. I would never have predicted that I would use that motif. It’s funny how situations come to be. I wanted to make smaller Breathers, something more intimate. For some reason, the Bathers idea came up, and our images of bathers are also so much more complicated now. We have the usual idea of what a bather is (a beachgoer) but also images of people washing up on shores, refugees from collapsing regimes. And this clash of culture—people having fun versus people needing to survive—it’s truly part of our time. This is the present tense. So I wanted a space to think about those images.

ST: I was struck earlier, actually, when you mentioned that some of the earlier Breathers you made were at a larger scale. Partly, you were thinking about bringing them down to this more human size and a more vulnerable feeling.

PC: That’s right.

ST: And that then manifests as the Bathers. They are these bare-skinned figures, quite distinct from the larger, even looming works that you were making before.

PC: It’s funny: the size (and also the clothes) makes them feel vulnerable. The fact that they’re partially clothed means that they must be partially naked, whereas before when there were no clothes, you can’t tell. You just assumed they were some spirit, but with the clothes—just a little amount of clothing—they feel more vulnerable.

ST: They do feel bare rather than cloaked.

FT: That’s interesting. The idea of vulnerability makes me think about the ambivalence of being in close proximity to the water—which is pretty recent as a leisure activity. Not so long ago, the sea was just a place for adventure, work, and danger.

ST: It’s a shift from earlier representations of the bather. The legal status of bodies of water is coming to be understood differently, right? When I was beginning to work on this exhibition, we were showing a work at Nottingham Contemporary by Forensic Oceanography, a duo connected to the Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths, University of London. They made a video called Liquid Traces (2015), which looked at what came to be known as the Left-to-Die Boat, which was the boat that went for two weeks in NATO-controlled waters in the Mediterranean, and no country took responsibility for it. Forensic Oceanography were able to reconstruct, or reverse-engineer, this journey by way of the different radio transmissions that were made. In their work, the sea becomes a sort of “liquid border,” as they call it. That’s clearly not a conception of the Mediterranean that surfaces much in the “bather” paintings of a century ago.

FT: Taking a larger road, the Mediterranean is related to your interest in ancient philosophy. You came to the Greeks via an interest in Nietzsche, which blossomed in Basel during one of your exhibitions. Nietzsche taught for few years in Basel, and he had an obvious interest in the Mediterranean for both scientific and health reasons. This seems to be a strong interest: you’re also publishing Parmenides in the catalogue for this show.

PC: Yes, we’re translating four fragments of Parmenides for the book. They’ll be presented alongside essays by me and Sam.

FT: What drew you to publishing?

PC: I was tired of art, so I left. And then I needed something to do.

FT: It seems like a perfect journey to take, following the philologist Friedrich Nietzsche from Basel to ancient Greek philosophy. And now you’re here in Athens with an exhibition that relates in some way to The Odyssey, and you’re publishing a new translation of Parmenides.

PC: It almost fits too neatly. I’m almost suspicious of my own motives [laughs].

FT: Why do you say that?

PC: Philosophy is something that’s been with me for a long time, but Nietzsche pointed me toward the Greeks while I was in Basel. Before that, I didn’t even like Nietzsche. He’s not in the inner circle of who I care about when I think about philosophy; I find him temperamentally hard to read. But, you know, he’s a formidable philosopher and a formidable philologist. In my mind, a better philologist than philosopher. Nietzsche uses the Greeks to understand art and what it can be, or what it should and shouldn’t be. For me, he provides the conceptual ambition to understand how the past can enrich or redescribe the present tense of what art can be.

ST: Nietzsche used the Greeks and, arguably, abused them to laud art, and then when he fell out of love with art, he used the Greeks again to abuse Richard Wagner. He totally lost faith in art.

FT: Sam, how has it been working on this show from your perspective?

ST: The conversations and whole process have been a pleasure. As I said to Paul earlier, this is really an exhibition about process. When you see the paper works, when you see these models in the vitrines, when you see the paintings, a lot of these are the preparations, or you could say the code, for the Bathers themselves. They’re the conceptual underpinnings on which these works are animated. It’s been a very intellectually rewarding conversation to be part of.

FT: And how does this philosophical and artistic journey you have made with Paul up to Athens connect, more widely, to your curatorial practice? What were the aspects of working on this exhibition you feel are more relevant, or will find a continuation, in your research?

ST: The conversation that Paul and I started at the beginning of the year was about education, as a few months before that I had published a book called School, about self-organised education. While our conversation might have ended up somewhere different, I do think both the exhibition and the publication are shaped by pedagogical questions. That is to say, what does critical thinking look like today? How has art education changed? And what kinds of roles can artists and writers play in these debates?

FT: There’s another theme that’s hardly noticeable in the exhibition, but it’s there, as Paul mentioned: the refugee.

PC: An emergency blanket and a life belt. That’s now an image of bathing. We have to make room for that image of the bather today. They’re not all beautiful young men and women next to a pristine lake or river. We’re usually wading in a polluted body of water with a bunch of trash in the sand. At least us New Yorkers. And we’ve seen, in the last few years, the potency that these kinds of images can have on the political imagination.


Paul Chan: Odysseus and the Bathers
NEON at the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens
Until 14 October 2018

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