Los Angeles

Nam June Paik

Dorothy Goldeen Gallery

Nam June Paik’s practice, like that of many of his Fluxus peers from the late ’50s and early ’60s, has existed in uneasy contradiction with the co-opting attempts of the art establishment to circumscribe an ephemeral, often aleatory body of work within an ongoing Modernist/post-Modernist historicism. In much the same way that Joseph Beuys and John Cage have, Paik has become part of the international art elite, his work defined and disseminated in terms of a specific historical time and place. On its own terms, Paik’s work itself has evolved from a dynamic, audience-participatory deconstruction of the reifying effects of mediation and the culture industry to a prime example of reification itself.

These antinomies were perfectly illustrated in this exhibition of Paik’s video sculptures, in which two current video works and a series of prints, all 1989, compared unfavorably with a Fluxus-inspired installation from the ’60s. TV Clock, 1963–89, consisted of 24 color-TV monitors mounted on pedestals in a darkened space, with each video image compressed to form a straight line/axis against a black background. When read in a linear sequence, each static line created two progressive rotations, from vertical to horizontal to vertical, much like the hands of a clock moving through two 12-hour periods of time. By forcing the viewer to move bodily through the installation as a whole in order to generate both real and signified duration from static images, Paik undermined the discrete, static autonomy of his own work. The installation was contingent and dependent on viewer complicity for both completion and conceptual unity.

In contrast, Alexander Graham Bell, 1989, elicited a purely passive response, reiterating reactionary notions of artist as author and viewer as receiver of preferred wisdom. A number of different “antique” television cases and telephones were stacked to represent an anthropomorphic robot (a familiar Paik theme), much like some quaint relic from a ’50s sci-fi movie. Each TV box framed a video monitor that spewed out the same synchronized bombardment of media imagery, as if Jean Baudrillard’s nightmare vision of “the obscene delirium of communication” had become reified as historical allegory—as yet one more link in the endless communication chain. While this premise had the potential to indict all forms of reification as received information, Paik merely presented the work as an inescapable fait accompli. All the viewer can do is reshuffle the existing raw material in the same way that Paik reshuffles his monitors and imagery to form different figurative and semantic permutations.

This denial of the transformative powers of art and reception was further reinforced by a series of eight etchings from the “Robot Portfolio,” representations of real sculptural video robots first exhibited by Paik at the Ville de Paris in the spring of 1989. Appropriate to France’s celebrations of the bicentennial of 1789, the prints have a revolutionary theme, with each robot named after a specific historical figure, e.g., Danton, Diderot, Rousseau, Marat, and Robespierre. The drawn video monitors each communicated a specific philosophical or political text (by Paik and others) in English, Korean, or French, so that language as allegorical fragment became tied in with the monolithic homogeneity of television culture. One piece read, “Plato said WORD is the key. St. Augustine said SOUND is the key. Spizone [sic] said VISION is the key. TV has all 3.” Another read, “From Marx to Spengler, from Tolstoy to Tocqueville, not a single prophet of the recent past predicted the greatest problem of today: PARKING.” Such observations may be witty and playful, but they are also completely hermetic and rhetorical in terms of dealing with the real problems of alienation and reification. Perhaps the real question is not, “How and where do I park my car?”, but “Why bother driving at all—and, if so, where to?” For Paik, philosophers, television, and revolutionary change boil down to the same MTV jump cut.

Colin Gardner