In Khara En Tria [Joyer in 3] (2019), the floor elements play the role of multicolored sand dunes that protect and isolate the three figures from the rest of the space. Nicknamed Catullus (blue figure), Praxilla (yellow figure), and Sappho (teal figure), the three are sewn together to form an ecstatic, animated circle. The motion of each figure is distinct, but like Katabasis, the lateral air flow that travels through the arms of the figures synchronizes the gestures of Khara En Tria, into a choreographic whole.
The dynamics that animate 2chained or Genesia and Nemesia (2019) are as varied as the elements that make up the work. Each of the two orange and yellow figures are fashioned with multiple openings for air to escape or be redirected. The curves and folds in the upper sections disrupt the air flow, causing the bodies to fall away from each other. But as one body topples over, the angle of the fall forces the other body—which is connected by one of the “arms”—to pose in such a way that air pressure builds in the opposite. The pressure in the free arm creates enough force to pull both bodies up. But the force is so great that the bodies end up colliding into one another. Like a seesaw, this “loop” begins again as one body wobbles and descends toward the floor, forcing the other body to pull them both up before the entire work collapses anew.
Los Baigneur [Poordysseus] (2018) is a bright yellow bather sporting a black bikini and a multicolored mesh shirt. Encased in a specially built wooden vitrine, Poordysseus is animated as if they are trapped and want to escape. The bather flings forward and crashes against the vitrine. The internal structure of Poordysseus is such that they can recover from the crash. The bather picks themself up against the transparent surface. But air pressure builds inside the body in the upright position, so the figure teeters back and forth, until it can no longer contain the pressure inside and must find release. The openings on top and on the back of the body push air out and hurl the body toward the vitrine once again.
The bathers are complemented by what Chan calls “towel works”: unstretched canvases hung on wall mounted racks, like beach towels drying in bathrooms. Each towel depicts a composition derived from the patterns Chan created and used for making the bathers. The composition is painted twice, one on each side of the canvas. Chan paints these “towels” to develop the color combinations that may (or may not) be realized in the bathers themselves. Each shape in the towel is expressed in one color only. And the colors come “straight from the tube,” according to Chan.
He does not mix, dilute, or add anything to the paints. And none of the shapes touch, overlap, or integrate in any way, “just like America in 2019,” Chan says.
The Bather’s Dilemma ends with a room that showcases a number of “models” Chan makes to sketch out the initial bathers’ forms. The models are sewn in muslin and mounted on floating wooden shelves. Raw materials from Chan’s studio are hung underneath each shelf, and composed in ways to help him imagine the color and material combinations the bathers might take on.
Lastly, Untitled (2019), is a charcoal drawing of two hands that serves as a coda and guide to the entire exhibition. Chan wrote recently:
At every age, overwhelming structural iniquities bring meaningless and arbitrary suffering and pain. And at every age, people organize to resist the best they can to try to stop the calamities from claiming more lives. [But] progress takes a toll, especially on those who want it most. Resistance wears down the spirit, and makes a mess of the body and mind. It is a shame that it feels natural to expect suffering in oneself for the sake of ending it in others, and commonplace to accept this terrible symmetry as the price one pays for progress.
The bather in art breaks with this terrible symmetry by offering an image of another way forward. Works that take up this motif invite us to reflect on how pleasure renews us. They are reminders that pleasing and being pleased – without aggression or guilt – expands our capacity for fellow feeling. Genuine pleasure is rejuvenating. And like that perfect night of sleep, it has a clarifying quality, as if one has emerged from a kind of cleansing. This sense of being cleansed is stimulating and healing, insofar as it helps renew us to more ably face what the day demands.
Progress without pleasure at heart is not progress at all. But pleasure without progress in mind is destructive, deadening, or a bore.
But what does it mean for pleasure to be genuinely progressive? How does the capacity for “pleasing and being pleased” help one be more resilient in the face of present and future concerns? And how can one be vigilant of, and sensitive to, kinds of progress that are socially and politically well-intentioned, but makes no room for pleasure and in truth are “not pleasing”?
This is what Chan calls “the bather’s dilemma.”