This is the interview that The Art Newspaper did to the winner of the Hugo Boss prize, Paul Chan. The title is: ‘Paul Chan: I want to be an amoeba’. WRITTEN BY HELLEN STOLAS

The artist Paul Chan was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss prize at a star-studded ceremony at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last week. The Hong Kong-born, New York-based artist is to receive $100,000 and a solo show at the Guggenheim next spring. An international jury of museum directors and curators selected Chan over fellow nominees Sheela Gowda, Camille Henrot, Charline von Heyl and Hassan Khan. (Steve McQueen withdrew his name from consideration earlier this year, citing a busy schedule.)


Initiated in 1996, the prize is awarded every two years to an artist who has made “a significant contribution to the evolution of the contemporary visual arts”, according to the museum. On the occasion of Chan’s win, we are posting an interview with the artist from our April edition.

Paul Chan is a hard artist to pin down. Not literally: in person he is forthcoming and warm. He has invited me to meet him before he gives a sold-out talk at the New York Public Library, where he is launching a book of interviews with Marcel Duchamp by the New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, published by Chan’s press, Badlands Unlimited. Metaphorically, though, he is an artist whose work can defy categorisation.

His best known pieces are video-based, such as the dreamy series of projections on floors and walls, “The 7 Lights”, shown at the New Museum in 2008. But text has always loomed large in his work, and he could be considered as much a writer, a poet or theorist as he is an artist. Chan ostensibly took a break from making art to start a publishing company, but that did not stop him from experimenting with the form. He has carved a short story in stone (billed as coming from “the tradition that produced Gilgamesh, the Rosetta Stone, and The Ten Commandments”); held a group exhibition in the form of an interactive e-book; and created a collection of animated gif files to “delight casual and serious readers alike”.

At Documenta in Kassel in 2012, Chan ended a three-year hiatus to show a new work, Volumes, for which he created small, atmospheric paintings on the covers of books from which the pages had been carefully removed. Volumes, it turned out, was just a peek at a larger project that includes texts the artist has written about the books used, which Chan has said he has never read.

The bigger version of Volumes is one of the completely new works shown this month, along with some of his earlier videos, projections, sculptures and works on paper, at the Schaulager in Basel, his first museum exhibition for several years.

The Art Newspaper: This is your first major exhibition since the New Museum show in 2008 and it includes a lot of work from throughout your career. What has it been like preparing for the show?

Paul Chan: To tell you the truth, it’s hard to know because I’m still in the middle of it. What’s interesting is that the priority is on things that have never been shown, so how these new works play with the old works is an open question. The Schaulager is a unique space; what’s great is that its shape shifts to the needs and desires of the artists. It’s a unique opportunity to get so much control and freedom in terms of realising how your work ought to stand in the space. It’s a daunting task.

I haven’t shown any new work since 2009. I think Documenta was the first hint I was actually doing something, but even that was incomplete. So this will be the first new complete work, and it’s very exciting.

Were you still working on Volumes during Documenta? Or were you just not able to show the complete series?

What you’ll see at the Schaulager is that Volumes is only one part of a project. In Documenta, fewer than 500 of the book works were shown; at the Schaulager, all 1,005 will be. No one knew that what I had planned for that project was more than those paper works, that I had finally been writing pieces of text associated with those books. So the Schaulager show will not only premiere Volumes in its entirety but also the book where each of the texts associated with the covers on the walls is published. The book is an exhibition unto itself, in a way.

That’s co-published with your own press, Badlands Unlimited?

Yes. I started Badlands in 2010. It’s hard to know if you are really serious about something until you do it. I started the press as kind of a dare. I had no experience publishing books at all but three to four years later I still have the press, we’re doing OK and we haven’t been shut down by the tax authorities.

It seems you are doing a bit more than OK?

It’s been a real pleasure wasting money and losing time, but that’s what it is really. I mean you might know more than I do, as someone who works in the print business. Finding where there is profit is almost a kind of magical thinking. As important as books may be, it seems even breaking even is too large an endeavour for me.

What’s it like for you juggling your roles as a publisher, artist, writer and producer?

I don’t think about it in terms of who I am but what I am capable of doing. I don’t regard myself as a publisher really, I think of myself as someone who works with two or three great young writers to publish the strangest books we can—and tries to do it within the framework of a small business. Badlands is not a not-for-profit, we are a small business, and we wanted to see if it was possible to make it work.

We started with the idea of just publishing e-books but then we started making paper books, then stone books. Now we are co-publishing with institutions and are about to launch a website that is a kind of printed platform unto itself—and that is how I like things. What attracts me is something that is protean, something that is changeable, something that is relentlessly incomplete.

That’s what the Badlands project is—and we’ll see if the work at Schaulager animates that kind of spirit.

Can you tell me about some of the new works that will be in the Schaulager show?

They will be a little more physical than things I have done before. They all essentially started with the idea of devolving. I have learned so much from thinking about the moving image in its various forms. As I approached the Schaulager show I really had to ask myself what I wanted to do, what I was willing to do. What I was not willing to do was to cover the same moving image ground. And so the question then becomes: “If you are not going to make projections, what are you going to make?” Well, what happens before the projection? Before the projection there is the piece of equipment, and before the piece of equipment there is the power cord that’s connected to the electricity. That was the start. It came from this spirit of having to devolve. Having to go backwards. In a way the idea is to go backwards as we move forwards. I feel like I am constantly devolving.

Devolving into what?

Probably barbarianism. Losing parts of articulate speech, losing brain cells, slowly losing my bone structure. Turning into the amoeba that I long to be. Freud called it the death cry, which I think is melodramatic, frankly, but he is more or less right. We are looking to find some sort of peace and it turns out the ultimate peace is to be an amoeba.

It must be a pretty nice life for an amoeba, I can see that.

I don’t want to impose any kind of restrictions on this interview, but I’d like you to consider that as a title—“It must be a nice life for an amoeba. A Paul Chan interview”. That about says it all.