How Paul Chan is Destroying Books

The idea of destroying books—literally and figuratively—never occurred to artist Paul Chan, until a couple of years ago. His ebook publishing company, Badlands Unlimited, was participating in the New York Art Book Fair, when an argument broke out in front of their booth. Two women were having a heated discussion about whether or not publishers like Chan's were destroying books. One of the women argued that the shift to electronic books was inevitable, while the other vehemently disagreed, declaring, "They are burning books!" Although not present at the fair himself, when Chan heard this story, he says a light bulb went off. He had never considered that he was destroying books—in fact, he thought he was creating them. But if he were going to be accused of such an atrocity, why not do it right? - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Installation view of Volumes—inncompleteset, 2012, Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany.
(detail), 2012, Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany.

He started with his favorite book, a copy of Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena, carefully separating the pages from the spine, one by one. When he was left with just the cover, Chan flipped the book over and was about to tear it in two, but stopped when he realized the surface and shape of it seemed familiar. Hanging it on the wall, he was drawn to the idea of painting on it. Feeling liberated, he did it again to another book. And then another one. And another. One thousand and five books later, he had produced the pieces for his work Volumes—inncompleteset (2012), which was exhibited at Documenta 13 this summer. “It was immensely pleasurable,” he says of the book destruction, "but also satisfied my desire to work with something physical again in my work," after devoting so much time to his ebook publishing project.

Installation view of Volumes—inncompleteset, 2012, Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany.
Installation view of Volumes—inncompleteset, 2012, Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany

In many ways, Chan's desire to work with something ‘real’ highlights a nostalgia we all carry for the physical object when it comes to books. Despite his own investment in the ebook industry, the artist claims that the act of reading is a very tactile activity, and attributes the success of devices like Kindles to their ability to mimic the size and weight of a book. This is an idea reiterated by Chan's movement between digital and material mediums, and is an issue that conflicts many contemporary artists working in new media forms. The attraction of creating with readily-available digital tools, which is often more cost-effective, is something that also appealed to artist Josh Smith, who operated a digital publishing company called 38th Street Publishers for several years. Artists like Wade Guyton and Seth Price have also capitalized on the ease and efficiency of working with digital media, from file creation to file sharing.

In fact, Chan asserts that all artists working today are in some ways digital artists, and that there are very few individuals that are not touched by digital technology in some way. When artists create websites, share jpgs of their work, or publicize their shows through social media—these are all definitive marks of a technology that is becoming increasingly indispensable, particularly for young and emerging artists. The element of sociality that goes hand-in-hand with this type of creation is also a vital component, and “makes you value how social all artwork really is,” says Chan.

My Birds_1
Paul Chan | My birds...trash...the future, 2004, two-channel video (color, sound), 17 min.
Paul Chan | Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009, digital video projection, 5 hrs 45 mins.

The blurring of lines between mediums, due in part to the popularity of new media art, also creates the freedom to move between them, an advantage that Chan, Smith, Price and many others have been able to exploit. But it is also the speed at which information is shared that may also have an effect on the work that these artists produce, and their ability to move fluidly between mediums. In an age of 24-hour news cycles, digital files that are easily created and shared, and may go viral, are just as easily deleted and forgotten, buried under a deluge of tweets, status updates and blog entries that have propagated in the hours since their release. However, the pressure that artists may feel to produce work rapidly as an enduring path to relevancy may also have a silver lining, allowing them to move between works that are drawings, digital projections, paintings, and installations, as Chan has done, without raising eyebrows or attracting criticism. But this also begs the question: is digital disposable?

One of ten books created for Chan’s Wht is? series, available in ebook form and for free download at Badlands Unlimited. 7" X 8.5" X .25", 80 pages, Unique handmade book and e-book, Edition of 1 with 2 Artist Proofs.

Wary of labels, Chan is adamant that the ability of the artist to engage with these questions is what makes a more compelling case for doing something different. He says he doesn’t create his art with the intention of making one-of-a-kind “luxury goods” because he doesn’t want to be categorically boxed in as an artist who makes one thing or another exclusively. He prefers what he calls “room to move”—to move between painting and e-publishing, artist and author, expert and amateur. Of his Volumes installation, many of which feature landscape scenes, he says: “[Being from a city], nature is not something I know a great deal about. I know even less about painting. About the only thing I know is my sensitivity to light, and time passing. What more is there to know? Why it all ends, I suppose. But why the why?”

One of ten books created for Chan’s Wht is? series, available in ebook form and for free download at Badlands Unlimited. 7" X 8.5" X .25", 80 pages, Unique handmade book and e-book, Edition of 1 with 2 Artist Proofs.
One of ten books created for Chan’s Wht is? series, available in ebook form and for free download at Badlands Unlimited. 7" X 8.5" X .25", 40 pages, Unique handmade book and e-book, Edition of 1 with 2 Artist Proofs.


Paul Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1973. He holds a BFA and MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and Bard College, respectively, both with an emphasis in Video and Digital/ New Media Arts. In addition to his participation in Documenta 13, Chan has had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum in LA, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Badlands Unlimited has recently published a collection of poems by Yvonne Rainer, and AD BOOK, an experimental book consisting entirely of ads by the New York art collective BFFA3AE. 

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York. 


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