Nam June Paik

Since Nam June Paik is generally regarded as the father of video art, most observers misread his work as deriving from a fascination with TV and technology, with the flickering, glimmering image on the tube, and with the ubiquity of the camera. Yet Paik’s fascination goes hand in hand with a deep skepticism towards technology and the mass media—something few people realize, even though Paik himself has spoken about the way his objects ridicule technology. Several of his pieces allow two traditions, two completely opposite philosophies of life, to collide with each other: the Western tradition, that of the industrialized societies, which is aimed at distraction, and the tradition of Zen Buddhism, which is devoted to contemplation.

While Paik’s early works were inspired by his playful skepticism toward technology, the latest pieces reveal an effort to cope with an unleashed technology, which has long since slipped from human hands. Paik attempts, if not to place technology under a solid control, then at least to subordinate it to the human mind. This aim underlies his recent installation, which was conceived especially for this space. In terms of his overriding goal, it is perhaps his most consistent work. A burning candle placed in the room is shot by a video camera, enlarged by projectors, beamed to all four walls, and presented in triplicate. In this way, three reproductions of the burning candle appear on each wall, in red, green, and blue; the colors blend wherever they overlap. Here, the candle, as the source of the images, recedes completely into the background.The darkened room is dominated by an endlessly and restlessly flickering candle flame, which instantly responds to every puff of air, every motion in the space. Thus, the flame becomes a seismograph of the atmosphere in the room, yet this atmosphere is always partly determined by the relative movement of the flame.

For centuries, the candle was humanity’s sole source of artificial light. Buddhism, whose goal is, figuratively speaking, the illumination of humanity, made the candle a central object of meditation, reflection, contemplation, and self- communion. Cameras and other recording devices, on the other hand, have increasingly proved to be insidious and, therefore, dangerous enemies of any kind of meditation or contemplation. The technological cunning of the camera arouses a fleeting curiosity that is always ready to pounce on its next object. Thus, the camera, though implementing a sort of communication, never really aims at true understanding. Its concern is the very opposite: to avoid insight, to sidestep any real look at life—in other words, to provide distraction. For this reason alone, the encounter between the candle and the camera is a face-off between two incompatible stances that enter into a dialogue. The candle holds its own as an ancient emblem of contemplation. The flickering flame, although transmitted by camera, creates a place of silence and meditation.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.