Good Form: Paul Chan’s Hippias Minor or the Art of Cunning

Opening this weekend is Paul Chan’s new exhibition Hippias Minor at the DESTE Foundation project space, the Slaughterhouse on the Greek island of Hydra.

I have been honoured to have been a part of this exhibition in the form of the new book Hippias Minor or the Art of Cunning, published by DESTE and Chan’s Badlands Unlimited press.

My work as one of the editors (along with Paul Chan and the brilliant Karen Marta, who has been involved in several of Chan’s previous projects) and as contributor (my essay is called ‘Socrates 420’) for this book has been one of the proudest moments of my career so far, especially in terms of my exploration of the dynamic between Classics and Contemporary Art. In many ways, this project is precisely what I set out to achieve with Minus Plato and my general approach to collaborations with contemporary artists. The fact that an artist of the stature and significance of Paul Chan decided to work with me on a project involving a deep and novel reading of a Classical text is, to my mind, ample proof of the importance of the dynamic I work hard to promote and engage. Furthermore, by inviting the incredible talents of renowned translator Sarah Ruden to create a new version of this under-read dialogue, in terms of Chan’s innovative and fresh reading of the text, we now have an English edition of the text for the contemporary world (and one that is slightly more classroom-friendly than Chan’s previous project on Plato’s Phaedrus – Phaedrus Pron!).

While such a scale of engagement and commitment to ancient philosophy and literature on the part of a contemporary artist is unprecedented (see my earlier posts on Chan’s work, especially the monumental New New Testament), I very much hope that this is only the beginning of a rich and exciting collaboration between the Classical and the Contemporary.

As we editors note in our Acknowledgments to the book, one of the key points of reference for the project – and a major (if rather covert) presence in my own essay – was the radical television series by the late, great Chris Marker called The Owl’s Legacy.

Marker’s 13-part series of 1989 explore the legacies and complexities of ancient Greece in the modern world with this artist’s well-known devious skill and intellectual flair in creative documentary-making. Paul Chan made direct homage to Marker’s dual avatars – the cunning cat and the wise owl – in his recent exhibition Selected Works at the Schaulager in Basel with his new work Teh Cat n teh Owl (here is a very brief clip of the two-screen installation):

In the Hippias Minor project, Marker’s influence permeates Chan’s conception of art as a form of cunning and the cat and the owl fight it out on the specially created logo of the project:

Yet, beyond the tribute to The Owl’s Legacy, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this project for me, as a Classicist, was how Paul Chan’s work and thinking about the idea of cunning (polutropia) between Homer’s Odyssey and Plato’s Hippias Minor not only generated his conception of art’s cunning (following Marker mixed with Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory), but also allowed me to consider the striking possibility that Hippias Minor has more to say about aesthetics than has previously been thought by scholars. During the writing of my essay, I discovered the significance of Socrates’ use of the term ‘gracefulness’ (euschēmosune) when discussing the athlete’s body amid a general account of whether the superior athlete is one who performs badly willingly. This term, which could be translated ‘good form’ or ‘elegant figure’ became, in Plato’s Republic, a key term for the philosopher’s discussion of art. And it was thanks to Paul Chan’s insistence of the aesthetic quality of cunning that allowed me to make this connection.

As part of the exhibition in Hydra, Chan has installed three ‘breezies’ (first seen in his recent exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York) to represent the three participants in Plato’s dialogue: Socrates, Hippias and Eudicus.

I cannot wait to see them in the flesh and in action first-hand and, when I do, I will be thinking of this concept of euschēmosune and about the endless possibilities for an engagement between ancient thought for contemporary art.

For more on the exhibition in Hydra, visit the DESTE Slaughterhouse website. For the book, see this page on Badlands Unlimited.

2 thoughts on “Good Form: Paul Chan’s Hippias Minor or the Art of Cunning

  1. Hello Richard, I didn't get to speak to you at the Symposium on Hydra, but I wanted to get in touch to say I really enjoyed your speech and your essay in the publication. I am currently working on a project about freedom and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK that supported the struggle in South Africa. Your essay has prompted some interesting ideas in regard to this research. Many thanks and Best wishes Neil

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