Smithsonian American Art Museum channels Nam June Paik

Somewhere, in the noise and delicious chaos of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Nam June Paik exhibition, the Korean-born trailblazer of video art can be seen on a screen saying this: “I would rather be corrupted than repeat the sublime.”

It is said in thickly accented but charming English, and it has the mix of impishness and obscurantism that made Paik an elusive and beloved figure, the holy fool and village idiot of contemporary art a half-century ago. But it is a canny estimate of his own work, so smart in its summation that it makes his “corrupted” later works, the glitzy, wall-sized video displays that used dozens of monitors for minimal impact seem less superficial, less trivial than they did 10 or 15 years ago. It tells us that Paik not only recognized and understood what he had become, he understood its inevitability, made his peace with it and, in that bit of refreshing honesty, Paik’s candor completes his trajectory as an artist in a way that is almost redemptive.

Unfortunately, the basic architecture of the new exhibition, which is built around the Nam June Paik archive acquired by the museum in 2009, puts the “corruption” upfront, with one large, late and rather vapid work creating a more powerful impression than the many smaller, nuanced and intellectually challenging pieces he made in the 1960s and ’70s. “Megatron/Matrix,” a permanent part of the museum’s collection, is installed in its own space, where it flashes and hypnotizes with a restless but exhausting energy, working too hard, yet never rising above the level of what one might see in a shopping mall in Shanghai or Dubai. It is a frenetic exercise in surface, and its occasional references to the centuries-long tradition of art history on which Paik grounded his best art — Courbet, Duchamp and the age-old tradition of the nude flit by — is too ephemeral to give it much gravitas. Basking in its lurid assault of color and motion, its images of flags and birds, and its relentless shifting patterns, one might forget the rest and best of Paik’s work, the pioneering videos, installation pieces and mock-reverent exploration of the television as a sacred icon.

Trash to treasure

Like another large-scaled Paik work in the museum’s collection, the 1995 “Electronic Superhighway” (on view in another gallery), it has no patina, none of the wistfulness of Paik’s earlier work, and it hasn’t yet mellowed. Technologically, it seems on the old-fashioned back side of the wave of new wonders, more disco than dubstep. Technology may be born at a relentlessly fast rate, but it ages on a decidedly human schedule, taking generations to go from trash to treasure. Its time might come, but compared with the earlier, more minimalist and conceptually focused works in the exhibition, that time may be decades from now.

Right next to this sensory symphony of a thousand is the 1963/1989 “TV Clock,” one of Paik’s seminal works, that brings together his intellect, his craft and his keen sense of good taste. On 24 television monitors, mounted on pedestals, a line bisects each screen, inclining from the 12 o’clock position through the stations of the day, until it is once again vertical. But the line also frays (dividing into smaller, colored lines), and the curve of the television screens makes this a study in lines that bend, even as the technology, and the reference to the passage of times, suggests a stringent Cartesian linearity and rationality. The viewer is drawn to look at it from the side, at an angle, a clean and telling metaphor for how the terrors of temporality compel us to look away, or look obliquely, as the sand goes galloping through the hourglass.


Nam June Paik, "Untitled (Newspaper Drawing).” (Copyright Nam June Paik Estate)

The “TV Clock” isn’t even Paik at his most minimal, or most haunting. “Zen for TV,” conceived in 1963 and seen in two different versions (1976 and 1982), uses the same simple line, carving the screen in half, to suggest the elemental division of the painted canvass, the stasis of the horizon line or the philosophically animating vertical line of a diptych, or the line of time, the deathliness of the flat line, the limitless possibility of the geometrical line, and the fade to darkness with which old televisions used to say good-bye when turned off. These silent, simple gestures are both contained and created by old televisions, one of them truly antique, the other gathering mid-century modern chic, both of them suggesting the frailty of technology past its prime.

Nowhere else to go

The zen of Paik’s work is explicit and emotionally powerful in three works from the early 1980s, all of them dependent on the narcissistic loop of watching and being watched that is essential to media culture. “TV Rodin,” from 1982, is a small bronze version of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” carefully placed on a TV Watchman, a hand-sized portable monitor introduced by Sony that year as the latest and best hope that we might never be disconnected from the media teat. Like “TV Buddha,” from the same year, “TV Rodin” is lost in eternal contemplation of the screen; but “TV Buddha” takes the drama a step further, with a video camera filming the Buddha as he watches his own image on the screen in real time.

This isn’t a mirror, but something else, a phantasmagorical double of the image, with a strange and uncanny power. You have the sense that if the Buddha’s spectral TV image ever went off, the statue itself might disappear. Certainly it would lose the appearance of consciousness which Paik’s clever arrangement has imputed to it.

“Stone Buddha/Burnt TV,” also from 1982, confronts that dark possibility. In this case, the TV has been all but destroyed, melted and distorted, while the small stone Buddha statue stares impassively at the broken object. The ghost in the machine has fled, leaving behind simply things, impassive and isolated from each other.

It’s easy to see why Paik may have thought he couldn’t possibly repeat this kind of work, why it was necessary to go in “corrupt” directions — celebrating the marvels and possibilities of technology rather than its metaphysical and psychological reality. And it’s also clear why, perhaps, he had no other place to go. Technology is a stern mistress, and Paik was faithful to a fault. He had committed to it early, and that commitment meant racing along with it.

And in many ways, the technology he was surveying was disappearing, becoming so much a part of the landscape that one took it for granted, becoming so complex in its inner workings that simple “hacks”—like the brilliant 1965 “Magnet TV,” in which a Georgia O’Keefe like distortion is created simply by placing a large magnet on top of an old black-and-white TV — were no longer possible.

“TV Garden” from 1974/2000 shows Paik grappling with this ubiquity, with the way media changes the landscape and our relationship to nature. Placing multiple monitors in a “garden” of potted plants, Paik summons the surreal, but also the allegorical and religious, a garden in which the plants seem artificial and domesticated, yet still have the power to summon intimations of paradise and its resident serpents.

That Paik’s work became less substantial later in life doesn’t detract from the brilliance and intellectual thrill of much of what is on display. The exhibition includes examples of Paik’s video work, and a wall of material taken from the Paik archives, emphasizing part of its larger argument: That Paik’s studio, his tinkering, his collecting and hoarding of material, was part of his art, or at least essential to an understanding of his larger, life-long project. This includes birdcages, busts of Beethoven and Elvis, and fanciful televisions, from antiques to space-age plastic confections that recall the golden age of Japanese materialism in the 1970s. The assemblage is fascinating, but leaves the unfortunate impression that he was a crank. In fact, he was one of a handful of the most important and influential artists of his generation.

Resilient, determined

In the 1990s, Paik took to drawing on the surface of newspapers with colored ink sticks, squiggles and shapes and hatching that sometimes obliterated and sometimes accented articles and photographs. A selection of these drawings occupies a wall, and it makes an unwanted, or sad, impact. One senses vitiation and fatigue, an artist responding to the surface of a changing world, rather than leading the conversation. A late work, made shortly before he died in 2006, is called “Chinese Memory.” It consists of some books with Chinese references, childlike painting on a television cabinet, and a monitor.

“Chinese Memory” feels like an empty but important marker, or reminder: In the end, it’s about memory, about the wistfulness of past. The books suggest the powerful, but subterranean traditionalism that fertilized the best of Paik’s work, his sharp sense not just of art history, but of the history of western culture. Perhaps there’s a comment on globalism in this and other later works.

But both the newspaper scribblings and the images scrawled on the television in Chinese Memory have an air of resignation about them. Something was changing in the media world. The tool or object which once brought us images was losing its materiality, and in turn, it began to seem like we don’t so much consume media as are consumed by it. It had colonized memory, and was moving on to become so much a part of our daily consciousness that nothing could be separated out and set apart from the constant stream of images. There was no more thinker, no more silent Buddha, to ponder the phenomenon. There was no outside to it.

The best reading one can take from these later works is about Paik’s resilience and determination to stay focused on his life-life long project. They feel like a response to, or embodiment of Samuel Beckett’s existential mantra: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

“Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” is on view at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art through Aug. 11.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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