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.