Surfing the Guggenheim

TV babies: Grandma and Grandpa from Nam June Paik's robot family, made in 1986.Photo: courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum

In the late fifties, many artists symbolically flung open their studios and began working directly with the churning kaleidoscope beyond the door. Why shouldn’t the clamor of the street, the flicker of the movie screen, and the siren call of celebrity enter the preserve of art – that is, if an artist hoped to convey a truthful image of modern life? Nam June Paik, an artist who was born in Seoul but has spent most of his life in Europe and America, was a critical figure in this turn of sensibility. Like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, the Beat poets, and the artists of Fluxus – to say nothing of their great grand-Dada, Marcel Duchamp – he created work with a wry, quizzical take on the contemporary universe. He has often been called a “media artist,” the one who works with televisions. But the phrase seems too heavy-handed and academic a description of this artist. He is more like a media imp. He turns the world this way and that, mischievously and often, with a kind of Buddhist whimsy. With Paik, the play’s always the thing.

Frank Lloyd Wright would not agree, but the Guggenheim Museum is certainly the right venue for a retrospective of his work. Its grand spiral evokes both the distant past and the faraway future; it is part fossil, part flying saucer. For “The Worlds of Nam June Paik,” the artist, who is now 67 years old, was invited to transform this space into his workshop. (Some critics might say playpen.) He has responded with a commissioned work called Modulation in Sync (2000). On the floor of the darkened rotunda, he has scattered 100 TV monitors that lie on their backs, projecting a flickering collage of moving images toward the sky; six large screens hanging on the sides of the rotunda pick up the same image loop. Near these scattered TVs, Paik has placed Jacob’s Ladder, a laser that creates steps of green light rising from the fountain to the ceiling; these floating steps soar through a waterfall seven stories high. And on the ceiling itself, Paik has used another laser to project a constant swirl – a rhyme in light with the spiraling form of the museum – called Sweet and Sublime.

If you sense a not-so-hidden meaning here, you are right. The screens and TVs evoke the jumpy and distracting visual energy – the channel surfing – of daily life. We see a reporter in Europe, two people dancing, a blur of color; the jumble of TVs on the floor is itself a kind of urban crowd. But the frazzled light melts away as the eye is led to concentrate, instead, upon Jacob’s Ladder as it rises, step by step, toward the Sweet and Sublime. For the museum’s High Gallery, Paik has created another meditative work that begins with three essential shapes in architecture: the square, triangle, and circle. Within each of these strict shapes he has fashioned a play of laser light that seems both structured and spontaneous. The square looks like an homage to Joseph Albers’s Homage to a Square. He calls the triangle Six Seconds After the Big Bang.

On the ramp, the curators of the show – John G. Hanhardt, with the assistance of Jon Ippolito – have organized a retrospective of Paik’s art. From the late fifties until the present, Paik has used mainly the television set as his subject. I say “television set” rather than “television” or “media” or “video imagery” because Paik, unlike most artists who work in this area, always gives an eccentric vitality to the box itself. He does not let the eye look past or through the machine to the image; the box becomes the living body or face around a flickering eye. In short, Paik is a figurative artist, and the TV set is his figure. His televisions, like people, are poignant, irritable, thoughtful, empty, comic. In what is probably his best-known work, a performance in the best absurdist tradition of Dada called TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), Paik turned televisions into the mother’s milk of art. He fashioned a brassiere from two small television sets, which Charlotte Moorman then used while playing the cello. The work elevated, among other things, the meaning of the phrase “boob tube.”

Paik’s televisions often appear at once comic and oddly spiritual in import. In one early work, he hollowed out a television set and placed a burning candle inside. In another, he turned a TV into an aquarium in which tropical fish drift about aimlessly. Is this what happens to your mind when you watch too much television? (And yet it could be worse. The scene is very peaceful.) Then, making use of closed-circuit video, he added a second TV set so you can simultaneously watch both a live and a video version of the floating fish. (Somewhere I hear a drugged-out voice saying blissfully, “Awesome.”) At times, Paik’s TV sets seem to sleep and dream. In one series, the TVs are lying on their sides, projecting different phases of the moon; the last set displays a romantic image of seagulls gliding about in front of a vast orb. Paik has also used the boxes to construct figures that have a beguiling presence. As befits their age, the grandfather and grandmother in Family of Robot are made from old radios and televisions.

When first made – or at first glance – the work of artists in the Dada tradition often seems as lively as the passing moment. But art so insistently present-tense also wears down with time and age, often losing a good part of its power to nostalgia and archival pedantry. This show, for example, is steeped in the melancholy of old machines. TV sets, once new and now quaint. Technological shapes, wires, knobs, junked long ago. The art also has the poignance of performances past. Black-and-white archival photographs of high-spirited young people carrying on many years ago. (“Look at how long his hair is! And what was her name?”) They are like the old theater tickets found in your pocket. The same wearing-down will happen to the techno-razzle-dazzle of Paik’s recent commissions, which are, in fact, already becoming period pieces as the digital revolution comes to art.

And yet the best images of Paik’s – like the great Surrealist objects – mysteriously claim the mind. Those fish, for example. They are so unexpected, and so unexpectedly right, about our media-soaked culture. There is something important about the way Paik works, tinkering, arranging, playing with – entering – his television sets. He seems to possess these machines, lest they possess us.

Surfing the Guggenheim