Sade for Sade’s Sake (2009), a three-channel animation projection that Paul Chan (b. 1973) presented for the 53rd Biennale di Venezia this year, depicts shadow-like human bodies in physical movement. These figures talk, argue, and plea with one another, walk and crawl, beaten and whipped, and engaged in sexual activities and religious rituals. Interspersed among them are shadows of rectangles, squares, and other shapes and forms.

Selina Ting, Summer 2009, Paris

On Sade for Sade’s Sake

ST: In your opinion, how many people have watched the video, Sade for Sade’s Sake (hereafter “SSS”) in its full-length of 5hours 45mins?

PC: None, let’s hope.

ST: We know that the video has a basic structure of 45 second per scene interspersed by some geometrical forms of objects. You once said it’s like a ballad. Does it bear any resemblance to the structure of Sade’s 120 days of Sodom, i.e. from Part 1 to Part 4 and the repetitive structure of Day 1 to Day 120?

PC: The whole piece is structured like a ballad. Each of the 45 second scenes I consider a line in the ballad. Four lines make up a stanza in a ballad, and so each stanza has a particular rhyming scheme. Visually this means that the lines that are suppose to rhyme have recurring visual elements in their scene, but in a different composition or way of moving.

ST: I’ve only seen a little part of it, but I am very curious to know how it develops within the 5hours 45mins. Is there “development” in it?

PC: Yes, SSS changes radically over the course of the 5+ hours. Things fall apart, bodies become disembodied, rhyme becomes reason, and colors change, and so on.

ST: What do these geometrical objects stand for?

PC: I don’t know. You know?

ST: Well, perhaps they are windows for escape…or they can be residues of visual spots in the mind, objects for worship, or a black hole where humanity falls. I am so often told by artists that once the work is done, they gained autonomy and have their own life in the world. Art is for everyone’s interpretation.

PC: Just the interesting observation that when something becomes free, or what you describe as something gaining autonomy, it tends to emanate an essential formlessness, whatever it looks like, which could be interpreted as something everyone can interpret. But for me this formlessness shouldn’t be seen as a kind of willful ambiguity. It is more like the stubbornness of someone not willing to belong to anyone or anything.

ST: Someone humorously commented that to attempt Sade’s 120 days of Sodom is a challenge. Because if you can’t persist till the end, you are a loser; if you successfully make it to the end, you made yourself a fool. Can this be applied to your work as well?

PC: No, because the only holy fool is me, for making it. It’s also a good question whether Sade wrote 120 days to be read. He wrote it during his imprisonment in the Bastille. And like any prisoner he wanted to escape. And how he escaped was by writing, by making literature. So in the end what is most vital is the time spent making it, not in having it received.

©Paul Chan, Sade for Sade’s Sake, three-channel animation projection, 5hr45mins. Courtesy of the artist

On Freedom

ST: You’ve also mentioned the idea of escape in Venice. You said that “the most intimate form of engagement is escape. Escape creates a sense of inner and outer integrity and gives a picture of what freedom looks like”. Can you further elaborate the relationship between confinement, escape and freedom?

PC: Sure. Confinement is the condition that makes us desire escape most, and in escaping we achieve freedom. In freedom we find the truth of confinement, which is not something oppose to freedom, but in fact its grounding. I think this is what they call a Hegelian triad. But I’m most likely wrong.

ST: SSS has been largely regarded as a critique of the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison for its sexual violence, imprisonment and torture. However, from your previous work, it seems that your interest in Sade is less on sex or sexual violence itself, but on the idea of supreme freedom or the so call “Sadeian Freedom” where individual sovereignty becomes the supremacy without limit. How do you interpret Sade’s notion of freedom?

PC: I have written before on this project that, does it make Sade’s work more bearable to remember that his thinking around sex, pleasure, and freedom are inextricably tied to a ruthless critique of institutional power, whether it was governments, churches, or philosophies? Probably not. The blue and purple prose is what sticks in the craw of the mind, a seemingly endless accounting of perversities, debaucheries, and tortures. The law of reason compels sex to greater and greater extremes. In Sade, the Kantian notion of freedom as the power to follow the path paved by the series of causes and effects from one’s own reason for being fulfills Kant’s image of human autonomy and at the same time makes a mockery of its humanist potential.
Pleasure has its own reason and freedom its own law. Call it Sade’s law. And yet to follow Sade’s law to the letter is to pledge an allegiance to an imaginary power as rigid, cruel, and paradoxical as the one he was fighting against. The irony of this is on full view today. Since 2001, the US has waged a campaign to spread freedom and democracy around the world. But ironically, the more this freedom spreads, the more rigid, cruel and sexually inhuman the campaign becomes.

ST: In Must We Burn Sade ? (1955), Simone de Beauvoir accuses Sade for his solipsistic worldview, his denial of the reality of the Other and his oppression on the others. According to de Beauvoir, freedom and satisfactions for Sade can only be obtained in an imaginary or literary world where the others as embodied consciousness did not exist for him. In this sense, writing is a form of escape for Sade and his freedom lacks the possibility of action. How would you comment on de Beauvoir’s critique of Sade?

PC: You have reduced de Beauvoir’s essay to being merely a critique of Sade, when it is rather a more full bodied assessment of his work and its relevance then and now. One of the points de Beauvoir was trying to make was that Literature is a kind of action, and that the act of artistic creation has as much reality embedded in it than, say, digging a hole, or making love. That is why people wanted to burn Sade, they sensed in his work the gravity that comes from having made a concrete existence out of mere words.

ST: What about the critique on the oppression of the Other? What differs de Beauvoir’s notion of freedom from that of Sade is also her recognition of the inter-subjective lives and relationships of reciprocity.

PC: Yes, you’re right. The fundamental blindspot in Sade is that the people who populate his imaginative world are not really people at all, but things that can be used and dominated to their core. But isn’t this the mind simply wielding its power over the entire domain of artistic creation? Doesn’t Sade have a fundamental right as a thinking-and-making being to reflect and express whatever comes to him? This difference between Sade and de Beauvoir is not really a difference between different notions of freedom, but the irreconciliability between ethics and art.

ST: How relevant is Sade’s form of freedom to our society today?

PC: Sade is very relevant: he is the court philosopher for any country spreading democracy and freedom today.

On Sexuality and Morality

ST: Religion / Christianity is a point of attack for the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment thinkers. Sex as the origin of human evil and slavery becomes the primal site of transgression and individual liberty, especially for Sade. Today, the role of religion as a regulator is largely replaced by law. Law and Order become the social architects that construct a framework within which individual sovereignty is delimited and constantly kept in check. In your project, My Laws are my Whores (2008), where you presented 9 charcoal drawings of America’s Supreme Court justices vis-à-vis 14 large, textualized drawings based on the characters from Sade’s work. Can you share with us your dea under this provocative title and the juxtaposition of Law and Sade?
PC: Well, the first thing is that the title of that show is a parody of Diderot’s famous quip, ‘My thoughts are my whores’. But the spirit is the same. And for me it exemplifies what Sade was trying to achieve. A law of pleasure unto himself. I’ve written on the idea that the world Sade portrays is as representative of reality as pornography is to actual sex. But they are not mere fantasies. They posses the prodding movements of a mind that imagines sex not merely as a pleasure, a job, or a weapon, but as a form of reason. Here is where the spirit of Sade resides. If human freedom is expressed in the sovereignty of sex, then Sade is pushing to create a form of expression that can free the reason of sex from both nomos (human law) and physics (law of nature).

©Paul Chan, My laws are my whores, 2008, Charcoal and paper, Courtesy of the artist.

ST: Sade has turned his subversive, sadist sexuality into an ethic of erotic or mode of living and expressed that ethic of erotic through writing. There is also an attempt to synthesize the violent and arbitrary justice of the aristocracy with bourgeois rationalism of his epoch. Do you see any transgression, in terms of sexuality, politics, social justice, in this strategy?

PC: This is the second hardest question I’ve ever been asked. The first was by a 9-year-old who asked me how big God was. Yes, it was a transgression then, and in many ways it still is transgressive. There remains in Sade an unbearable quality. And this is what renders him relevant.

ST: What does this transgression imply in the relationship between the individual and the world?

PC: The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote that a poem, among other things, is ‘a violence within that protects us from a violence without’. In a way, the world trangresses upon us more than we will ever transgress it. The work of art, if it is art, gives us ways to abide in or resist the world.

ST: I read the mechanical sexual scenes in the video as numbing rather than shocking, like “violence for violence’s sake” or “torture for torture’s sake”. Under what conditions would morality / humanity completely surrendered to cruelty and violence? Is this question naïve?

PC: Not a naïve question. There are many conditions that would render humanity into perpetual cruelty and violence. Poverty is one such condition. Inequality would be another one. Lack of civil rights another. Your read of the “sexual” scenes from SSS is not off the mark. Although there is tenderness in there somewhere, but like real tenderness, it is fleeting and not readily apparent.

ST: How far can one say that your work takes the same line as Sade that Sexuality is not a biological imperative but a social fact?

PC: I don’t know. One can almost say anything these days. The question is whether what is said has the force of material reality or not.

ST: You said in Venice that “a person is a world more than the world itself, and that a shift in a mind means more than a change in gravity itself.” To what degree do you place your faith in humanity?

PC: I have no faith to place anywhere. Besides, humanity doesn’t need faith as much as a new reason to be itself.

About the artist

Paul Chan was born in 1973 in Hong Kong and currently lives in New York City. He received his BFA in video and digital arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his MFA in film, video, and new media from Bard College. His most recent solo shows include My Laws are My Whores in the University of Chicago in 2009, The 7 Lights in New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC in 2008, The Western Front in Vancouver, Paul Chan in Serpentine Gallery in London, Lights and Drawings in Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, all in 2007. His work was included in the Rotating Views #2 in Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo, in 2009; Medium Religion in ZKM Karlsruhe, T2 Torino Triennale, Turin, 16th Biennale of SydneyBetwixt in Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm, Traces du Sacré in Centre Pompidou, Paris, Shadow Cabinet in Extra City, Antwerp, all in 2008.

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