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.