Yet Washington takes Paik very seriously. Arguably the inventor of video art, the Korean-born artist died in 2006; in 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is home to two monumental works by Paik (“Electronic Superhighway” and “Megatron/Matrix,” both from 1995), essentially won an essay contest to secure Paik’s archives, beating out the Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and other high-profile institutions.
John Hanhardt, the senior curator for film and new media at American Art, who is organizing the archive, is preparing a vast exhibition of Paik’s work for 2012, having put together landmark Paik shows for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000.
So it is something of a surprise that the National Gallery of Art — not the first name that comes to mind in terms of Fluxus or brassieres or anything so unflinchingly fun — has mounted a small show of Paik’s work for its “In the Tower” series on contemporary art.
Strictly speaking, the show is a teaser: “One Candle, Candle Projection” (1988-2000), the centerpiece in the National Gallery exhibit curated by Harry Cooper, will be on display in Washington again next year during the much broader retrospective at American Art. In context, the National Gallery’s first exhibit of Paik’s work feels like a me-too show, lending little illumination to the artist’s career and still less so to the National Gallery’s contemporary-art program.
The space does seem made for the work. One could almost imagine “One Candle, Candle Projection” as a collaboration between Paik and architect I.M. Pei. For that piece, a video camera records the flickering flame of a candle, broadcasting it via closed-circuit video to a tiny adjacent television. The flame is also further multiplied by a number of projectors, including three-color ones, around the walls of the gallery. The flickering light, especially reflected by the vaulting Pei-designed glass ceiling, might make for a shrine but for Paik’s exposed cables and lo-fi projections.
Two other installations share that highest room in the tower. “Standing Buddha With Outstretched Hands” (2005) features a bronze, man-size, paint-splattered Buddha staring at a stack of four television sets. The Buddha, whose hands are at his sides, is recorded via closed-circuit video — a staple of Paik’s work — as he stares back at himself from the middle two televisions, while the TVs on the top and the bottom of the totem play loops of trippy video graphics. The work taps into the undeniable Zen of a television butt-numb-a-thon.