Nam June Paik, White TV, 2005, monitor, acrylic, permanent  oil marker, video (color, silent, 27 minutes 49 seconds), 17 1⁄2 × 17 3⁄4 × 21 1⁄2".

Nam June Paik, White TV, 2005, monitor, acrylic, permanent oil marker, video (color, silent, 27 minutes 49 seconds), 17 1⁄2 × 17 3⁄4 × 21 1⁄2".

Nam June Paik

The Harvard Art Museums recently received a substantial gift from Ken Hakuta, Nam June Paik’s nephew, of art by Paik along with funding for a postdoctoral fellowship devoted to his work. The first fruits of both came together in this rich exhibition, “Nam June Paik: Screen Play,” which was dominated by Paik’s later work from the 1990s and 2000s but animated by ideas fundamental to his life’s project. Cocurators Mary Schneider Enriquez and Marina Isgro, the institution’s first Nam June Paik research fellow, emphasized Paik’s interest in the surfaces of his well-known sculptural work with televisions by placing them alongside less familiar two-dimensional pieces: prints and drawings whose graffiti, scratches, and squiggles drew attention to the materiality of the nearby screens. In early pieces such as TV Crown, 1965/1999, in which audio instead of video signals are used to generate waveforms on the screen, Paik creates a kind of structural television—like contemporaneous structural films—by manipulating the device’s material qualities rather than the images it displays. Other works (a 1976 assemblage of televisions from different eras, a 1993–95 combine portrait of George Maciunas, both Untitled) feature the white noise of an untuned analog television, showing nothing but “snow.” And even in some of the pieces that make use of actual video images, Paik so obscured the screens—with paint (White TV, 2005) or by means of a lens (Untitled, 1996, an assemblage within an antique lantern)—that they lose most of their three-dimensional illusion in favor of flat patterns of color.

Those patterns are reflected in some of Paik’s more traditionally projected video art as well. “Screen Play” included two of his wonderfully subversive programs created for public broadcasts for WGBH in Boston and, later, WNET in New York: Electronic Opera #1, 1969, and A Tribute to John Cage, 1973/1976. In both, the artist makes use of a pioneering visual synthesizer—a device that dissolves the realism of video—that Paik and engineer Shuya Abe invented and built at WGBH. Chris Marker would later describe its effect in his film Sans Soleil (1983): “Treated by his synthesizer, pictures are less deceptive . . . than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality.”

That distinction between image and reality is an overriding concern of Paik’s work for broadcast. “This is participation TV,” says an announcer at the start of Electronic Opera #1. “Please follow instructions.” As synthesizer-treated images of “three hippies, a dancing model, and national political figures” (the latter including Richard Nixon and John Mitchell) swirl by, Paik’s own voice commands the viewer to “close your eyes. . . . Open your eyes. . . . Three-quarter close your eyes. . . . Two-third open your eyes. . . .” Ultimately, he instructs, “Turn off your television sets,” returning us to reality proper. In the current media moment, imagining the climate that allowed a show like this to be produced for broadcast television is nearly as mind-blowing as seeing the work itself.

In what was formally the most conventional work in the show, the drily funny A Tribute to John Cage, Paik’s subject’s philosophical challenge to art’s traditional distance from reality serves to similarly problematize the video’s claim to both. What we get instead is a kind of music: an abstract but logical flow of ideas, organized around recurring themes but linear enough that a single joke can be stretched from a setup at the start to a punch line thirty minutes later. (No spoilers here—see this any way you can; it had everyone in the gallery giggling, including a passing group of surprised children.)

These WGBH broadcasts nicely situated Paik’s work, not only in the Harvard Art Museums—where the curators had also taken care to connect it with their existing holdings of Fluxus art and of works by Paik’s friend Joseph Beuys—but also in Cambridge and Boston as a whole. Paik’s embrace of technology in the service of humor and philosophy is not far in spirit from that of MIT hackers. He found strong early support for his work in this city; it seems fitting that retrospective scholarship of his work will now flourish here as well.