Paul Chan (b. Hong Kong, 1973) is an American artist, activist, writer, and publisher. His work reflects a strong commitment to the relation of politics and aesthetics, philosophy and popular culture, art and grassroots activism.
Created from 1999 to 2003, his first major artwork Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization presents a 15-minute looped digital Flash animation inspired by as much by the history of utopian thought and the US invasion of Iraq as by Web 1.0 banner ads. Completed as part of his MFA degree at Bard College, Happiness also reflects Chan’s formative undergraduate years at the School of the Art Institute, where he first encountered the work of Chicago-based self-taught artist Henry Darger.
Darger’s beautiful and violent imagery runs throughout Happiness, which also cites the thought of radical 19th-century French socialist Charles Fourier. Chan’s invocations of Darger and Fourier summon the shared vitality and transgressive potential of “outsider art” and “outsider politics.” Cyclical passages of lyricism and turmoil play out across the two sides of Chan’s ultra-widescreen canvas: his vivid colors, uncanny figures and infernal, sensuous landscapes give form to both the delight and the despair of civilization.
In Happiness, Chan communicates a sense of living through a pivotal passage in history, but one whose competing stories and larger horizons remain obscure. Viewed within an expanded view of Chan’s artistic, activist and literary practices in the years around the turn of the millennium, this exhibition captures feelings of possibility and of foreboding. Chan has built on the formal and social concerns that shaped Happiness over a career that has seen major solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Schaulager in Basel, and the Guggenheim in New York, where he received the Hugo Boss prize in 2014.
An editioned work, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization is part of the 2016 gift of 68 works of contemporary art to the Block Museum from art collector, philanthropist, and software innovator Peter Norton. The Block gift is one of a series of gifts Norton has made to university art museums throughout the country. The gifts were made in recognition and support of those institutions advancing innovative work to integrate art into teaching and learning across disciplines, foster creative museum practices, and engage audiences with diverse forms of contemporary art.
Image: Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery