Nam June Paik did not exactly take the world seriously.
Over an extensive career spent making sculptures using television sets and installations using moving images, Paik employed a lot of very go-go video: dancing girls, disco tracks, hypercolor effects. For the cellist Charlotte Moorman, a musician whose collaborations with Paik represent some of the best work of the experimental Fluxus movement, Paik designed a bra using working miniature television sets. He described “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969) — Moorman wore the two sets in place of her bra cups as she performed — as the original “boob tube.”
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.
“Three Eggs” (1975-82) looks like Paik’s version of a Joseph Kosuth conceptual art piece: Paik’s take features an egg, a closed-circuit video recording of that egg, then another egg lodged in a television receiver where the video tube should be.
The televisions are not the anonymous gallery flat screens popular today, but soulful old Sony KV-4000 color receivers — tiny 3.7-inch-screen marvels that Sony boasted in 1980 were the smallest Trinitron televisions in the world. (Whatever that means.)
Along with “Standing Buddha” and “One Candle,” the conceptual “Three Eggs” piece rounds out a bare-minimum illustration of the lengths to which Paik went to explore the television as object and as phenomenon. With the candle, he sussed out the flicker and projection of its moving image. With “Three Eggs,” he relished the set as an object, while with “Standing Buddha,” he considered TV as a tool to turn on, tune in and drop out.
This somber room has the feel of a memorial to Paik — but an adjacent gallery is a better tribute, if inadvertently so. A selection of Paik’s lighter works on paper, including gifts to the museum from artist Robert Rauschenberg and collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, features doodles of antenna-clad squares. In a trio of strong, minimal, ink-and-pencil scribbles from 1978, he evokes television static.
But this gallery also shows a historical video (narrated by American Art curator Hanhardt) that scans Paik’s zany career. In an irony, viewers standing in a room filled with Paik’s work about television were transfixed by a video about Paik’s work — playing on a television the artist had no hand in.
Can drawings hope to compete with video in the best of circumstances? It was never Paik’s contention that the moving picture held primacy of place in a hierarchy of art objects; over his career, which spanned television’s rise from luxury to ubiquity, Paik remained slavishly devoted to the set as sculptural object. He was an unparalleled video artist, but no filmmaker.
And arguably, he’s the wrong choice for the National Gallery’s “Tower” treatment. For his part, NGA curator Cooper says there’s room in Washington for shows in 2011 and 2012. “Between the holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and National Gallery of Art, Washington has become a center of Paik study and activity,” he says. “As such, our two exhibitions can be seen as complementary.”
Yet with so few National Gallery programs designed to showcase recent work by contemporary artists, and a full-length feature exhibition on Paik just around the corner, the National Gallery has staged a trailer about his work, at best.
Capps is an editor at Architect magazine.
through Oct. 2 at the National Gallery of Art’s Tower Gallery in the East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Visit nga.gov.