“I thought you wanted to talk about sex?” Paul Chan asked playfully of Jeffrey Schnapp. Of course, we were all there in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale this afternoon to hear Chan talk about his new work “Sade for Sade’s Sake” which is installed on the decaying brick walls of the Arsenale. Schnapp asked Chan if the title of the work offered a guiding structure through the 5 hour and 45 minute installation. In turn, Chan toured the audience through his creative approach toward making the work, admitting that he first started with his love of words. “At first I wanted to explore making a sexually explicit work without working with the body. But then I realized, that was ridiculous!” Although Chan’s shadow animation involves a multitude of bodies and body parts, he notes that the way the work is structured, like a ballad, reflects his interest in re-inscribing the idea of sex in another form. “Poetry, with it’s rhythms, repetition, and cadence, creates a sensation in the body and our mind that somewhat approximates the sexual.”
Schnapp asked about the role of the reoccurring storyteller in the work. Chan noted that in Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” episodes of sexual debauchery were interrupted by afternoon storytelling sessions told by madams of the night. “He understood that to create the most heightened sense of desire, one must distance the thing that you want” Chan said of Sade, pointing out that this was the role of the storyteller in the book and in his animation.
Chan was careful not to make Sade out as either a hero or a villain – he approaches Sade’s text as raw material that can be changed and amplified for future use. Noting that Sade wrote his book while a prisoner, Chan spoke about the theme of escape - “It is important to be able to detach from the present moment. 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. “ In this respect, Chan does not regard the book so much as an escape route for Sade, but more of an idea of “what escape and what freedom looks like.”
Chan’s artistic practice is leavened with a sense of political struggle and conviction, and he drew from these sensibilities when questioned by Schnapp about the limitations of using pornography. “Porno has changed with the times and we are now in a time of the purification of porn” He noted that pornography, in its earliest forms, was often used as a political weapon and a form of social critique, “titillation was a way to make people feel” the issues at hand. Some where along the way, he noted, pornography “fell victim to the division of labor” and has left us with contemporary images of porn that employ every advance of media technology to capture what is “real,” but it is ultimately empty of meaning, as it only delivers that which is literal. In this regard, “the literal is the ultimate special effect” quipped Schnapp.
Continuing in this vein, Chan referred to Sade’s text as an exhaustive cataloguing of sexual practice that is at once poetic in its repetition, but also as cruel and rigid as the religious order responsible for his imprisonment – a telling case of the oppressed using the tools of his oppressor upon the objects of his own desire. Interestingly, Chan drew a parallel between the mechanism of Sade’s application of stifling rigidity to cataloguing sexual practice – one that rendered an autonomy of pleasure which was essentially mechanical and sterile – with the movement in the art world of applying increasingly rigid readings and categorizations of art, which are done in the name of the autonomy of art, but which may also handicap the ability to derive pleasure and read deeper complexities that the work may intend to offer. In fact, Chan stated that the reason why he chose to include the interludes of colorful geometrical compositions in “Sade for Sade’s Sake” was to “recreate a polyphony” of points of access to the material by including sources of sensual pleasure that must have been on the chateau’s walls – sunlight windows and artwork on the walls –but which had been entirely absent from Sade’s original text.
In the end, Chan admitted that he anticipated having a conversation that might have spun out in more somber tones, but the conversation was, surprisingly full of humor, and of course peppered with devious pleasures, and intellectual delight. On the closing note, Schnapp wondered out loud, how apt Foucault would be at reading Sade? Chan was taken aback by the thought “Now that is interesting…and I wonder how Sade might have read Foucault? I can see them now, holding hands, like in a claymation!”