Arts Desk

Close Reading: “In the Tower: Nam June Paik”

In this town, the name Nam June Paik is synonymous with technology overload: His “Electronic Superhighway”—which sets a neon map of the United States against a wall of TVs—is permanently installed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That institution hopes to expand our understanding of the late artist’s work next year, when it makes parts of his archive public.

Several blocks away, the National Gallery of Art’s “In the Tower: Nam June Paik” glimpses a quieter, more contemplative side of Paik. Its nucleus is “One Candle/Candle Projection” (1988-2000), in which a camera trained on a burning candle transmits its image to nine projectors. Flames dance up three walls of the East Building’s tower, playing off its glass ceiling. Visually, it couldn’t be simpler, even as it meanings are steeped in history, technology, and the achievement of Zen.

Traditionally, artists have employed the candle motif to evoke life’s impermanence. In the museum’s West Building, Georges de la Tour’s “The Repentant Magdalen” contemplates life and death, illuminated by a single, solitary candle. Some of the space required for deep contemplation is lost in the design of the Paik exhibition, but that might be strategic.

Two works bracket Paik’s burning candle: “Three Eggs” (1975-1982) and “Standing Buddha With Outstretched Hand” (2005), both of which contextualize Paik’s use of closed-circuit cameras. Paik’s Buddha contemplates his own image on a television, while “Three Eggs” is reminiscent of a Joseph Kosuth piece: There is an egg being videotaped, a closed-circuit television projecting the egg’s image, and a second egg inside a second television, which is hollowed out. Both reflect on materiality and substance, but in a more accessible way than Paik’s seemingly objectless flame projections. His eggs and Buddha are also more tongue-in-cheek; in the latter, the meditating subject becomes the object of his own meditation (a big no-no when seeking Nirvana).

Deep contemplation isn’t possible via Paik’s candle projection—the exhibit doubles as an elaborate joke. Zen is achieved by mediating on nothing. Some monks suggest meditating on a single flame, with the goal of eventually abandoning it. But because one transfixes on letting go of the flame, the idea multiplies in the mind, much like the projections on the wall.

But, even when meditation is a paradoxical exercise, it’s still self-contained. The adjacent eggs and Buddha distract from “One Candle,” adding unintending meanings to the installation. For all its complex ideas, “One Candle/Candle Projection” should still be a near-transcendental experience; here, it can’t even transcend a single room.

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