Collection Spotlight: Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization, Paul Chan

Title: Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization
Artist: Paul Chan
Nationality: American, born Hong Kong, 1973
Date: 1999-2003
Medium: Single-channel digital video on mini-PC, color, with sound, 17:20 min
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Peter Norton, 2016.4.8a

A writer, activist, and artist celebrated for efforts in video, sculpture, performance and installation, Paul Chan was born on April 12, 1973 in Hong Kong. Coincidentally, Henry Darger, the reclusive writer and self-taught artist known for the scroll-like illustrations he executed for his work of fantastic fiction, In the Realms of the Unreal, died the next day, one day after his 81st birthday, in Chicago.

Chan encountered Darger’s work while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as an undergraduate in the early 90s. A decade later, the artist debuted a digital animation, Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), which responds to the political and technological upheaval of the early-2000s through images and themes drawn from Darger’s art. Although the popular infatuation with Darger has much to do with his fantastical, world-building abilities, Paul Chan instead finds kinship with him as a fellow autodidact. “Reckless self-education” defines Chan’s career, one marked by boundary-breaking achievements in video installation (such as the acclaimed 7 Lights series from 2005-2007) theatrical performance (including a landmark outdoor staging of Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans), documentary (his 2004 film, Baghdad in No Particular Order) and publishing.

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Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery

With Happiness, Chan transforms artistic influence into a work of strenuous self-instruction. The looping 17-minute digital animation broadly divided into two sections: in the first, figures (based on Darger’s “Vivian Girls”) frolic across idyllic landscapes, indulging freely in the carnal pleasures of eating, sleeping, and having sex. These hedonistic tableaux, borrowing on the utopian writings of 18th-century French eccentric philosopher Charles Fourier and spotted with art-historical references, are soon besieged by shadowy figures of war and avarice. The piece’s second half presents violent, Dargeresque battle scenes whose a melancholic aftermath reflects both the fragility and the persistence of the utopian project: in Chan’s words, “building and destroying utopian ideas become the process of play [which] ‘Happiness…’ comes out of.”

Chan describes himself as a poor draftsman, a charge also often leveled at Darger. Both adopted new technologies to overcome their deficiencies. Darger used photo enlargements to resize the images upon which he based his characters; Chan taught himself the new medium of Flash animation, familiar to dot-com-bubble-era Internet users through banner ads and crude games, to animate Happiness. As the widespread availability of photographic technology facilitated Darger, so did the ubiquity of personal computers aid Chan, who ambivalently saw new network technologies as both a potential space for the democratization of art and as an “electronic boulder” immobilizing us through our constant awareness of the world’s tragedies and tyrannies. Opening their practice to new media, Darger and Chan also opened their work to powerful historical currents.

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Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery

Working on Happiness through a period which saw the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, the terror attacks of September 2001, and the unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chan addresses the violence and tumult of his moment through Happiness’s iconography of computers, cell phones, guns and flags. Shrewdly reconfiguring Darger’s wartime imagery to address more recent histories of American greed and imperialist aggression, Happiness teaches us to also read In the Realms of the Unreal politically and historically. In this light, Darger’s interpolations of popular images like the Morton Salt girl and his sustained use of popular press representations of modern warfare constitute, in the words of scholar Michael Moon, “a series of views of the successes and pleasures of twentieth-century mass culture, as well as of the massive and recurrent racial, ethnic, and sexual violence perpetrated in the same period.”

Reconnecting Darger to his historical context, Chan rejects psychoanalytic readings that see In the Realms of the Unreal as an escape from reality rather than a confrontation of it. Indeed, what draws Chan most to Darger’s imagery, beyond its beauty, its ingenuity, and its social relevance, is its insurrectionary, utopian spirit. Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization concludes with scenes of Vivian Girls-like figures running through post-war rubble, avatars of a revolutionary drive that persists despite violent suppression. Chan often claims that his work as an artist is distinct from his work as an activist–“politics is about answers to present questions, [while] art is about questions; questions that we don’t even know how to ask yet.” But both art and politics, for Chan and perhaps for Darger, are ultimately about freedom.

-Contributed by Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts

 

Sources:

Calvin Tomkins, “Shadow Player,” The New Yorker (May 26,2008): 40–45.

Alina Viola Grumiller. “Hope of Escape (Interview with Paul Chan)”. http://carlosmotta.com/artwurl/interviews/INT014.html (2003). Web.

Personal interview with the artist, Evanston, IL, April 26, 2018.

Michael Moon, Darger’s Resources (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012)


Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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