Nam June Paik (Tate Modern, SE1)

Nam June Paik played a huge part in bridging the gap between art and technology, a relationship I am most interested in, although I seldom practice it. Paik was born in South Korea but lived and worked in Japan, Germany and the United States. Being this well-travelled, Paik naturally began to question cultural differences during the time he was working. Most of the work I will be discussing was created during the seventies and eighties, a time of globalization, popular culture and consumerism. Technology was becoming more accessible to the everyday person and this world-shattering shift naturally informed Paik’s work. I will be examining my two favourite pieces from the exhibit while analysing the common thread between them.

As the Tate exhibition guide says, “this exhibition includes early musical scores, videos, altered TVs, robots and large-scale installations”, so there is a lot to choose from, but my favourite pieces are all television and/or camera based. Firstly, ‘Candle TV’ is a candle within a TV. This is a piece is largely about Buddhism and so obviously stems from Paik’s time in Japan, Buddhism being one of the major religions there. Meditating is a huge part of Buddhist culture in my understanding and there is definitely a comparison to be made by the way that a candle and a television both encourage the viewer to ‘zone out’ in which their eyes become glazed over. Additionally, in Christianity as well as Buddhism, the flame is a symbol of the temporary nature of life and material values, so to have this inside a television, the ultimate representation of consumer culture, is surely a comment on how temporary new technology is. There is something brand new released every day, things aren’t made to last – in this way, Paik is raising questions regarding sustainable living way ahead of his time. I enjoy this explanation, but I much prefer my own reading of the piece as a reflection on the meditative aspect of watching television as it’s something I can relate to. Many people fall asleep to the television as one might to a flickering candle. I don’t think I am jumping to conclusions when I say that television is a form of meditation in one way or another today and Paik made this very obvious to me.

Paik works with the candle again in his work ‘Candle Projection’. This time, tackling a question of critical art theory initiated by Joseph Kosuth in 1965; representation. This is incredibly relevant to my Final Major Project and so I thoroughly enjoy reading into this piece. A CCTV camera is pointed at a single flickering flame and the image is repeated multiple times on the walls by video projectors. One of the projections is separated into red, green and blue light; the basic components of the video image. What I love about this is that it emphasises the fact that video is an illusory form of representation. I like to take this a step further and argue that any kind of representation is a form of illusion, simply because it is not reality. Think of the enlarger in the darkroom which is split into three colour channels to make an image – here, you create your own reality depending on your interpretation of the memory/photograph. What you think it should be, how you think it looked, and how the image gets lost in translation from negative to print. No representation is truthful. This reminds me of the conversation I had with photographer John MacLean who introduced me to philosopher Vilém Flusser (Flusser said that the black and white photograph embraces the fictional aspect of photography with its abstract nature and is thus a more genuine photograph). Another important dimension to the work is the air flow which is generated by visitors’ movements and thus alters the shape of the flame. A candle demands tranquillity. The use of a candle in an installation renders it instantly interactive and is thus inherently more engaging – genius. In this reading, it becomes clear why Paik has used a candle (it was more straightforward why in ‘Candle TV’ but less so here). The live candle demonstrates, in real time, the Buddhist belief that all things are interconnected and in a continual process of change.

In the two works I have examined, I have concisely touched on most of Paik’s themes – motifs that are still relevant today and current in the art, timeless if you will. Paik was a successful artist worthy of a solo show at Tate because he questioned the status-quo, he makes us self-aware and challenges the viewer to question themselves, their way of living and what they are seeing. Paik presents us with something so visually simple, such as a candle, yet implements a narrative which is loaded with the most philosophical thoughts.