Billed as the first presentation of Nam June Paik's work in Orange County, the small exhibition that opened recently at the Newport Harbor Art Museum will be more than familiar to anyone who has seen Paik's video sculptures at the Dorothy Goldeen Gallery in Santa Monica. Three of the four sculptures in Newport--including the 1981 edition of the marvelous and provocative "TV Clock" that the artist originally made in 1963--have been lent by the gallery.
The fourth, a witty 1988 figure of a lumbering robot called "Chadwick a.k.a. Capek," built from monitors housed in vintage television cabinets, is from a private collection in Los Angeles.
A permanent public installation by the Korean-born, American artist is scheduled for unveiling at Orange County's new Anaheim Arena early in the summer. The notion of an introductory presentation at the museum is therefore certainly worthwhile, especially since this is an artist who, in effect, invented the very genre of video art. He's a pivotal figure.
Yet, the show being offered feels lackadaisical. Merely a quick, thumbnail sketch of a few of Paik's recent works, apparently determined by availability at a nearby commercial gallery, it seems to have been more definitively guided by the museum's well-publicized fiscal woes than by an effort to coherently introduce the significant work of a crucial artist.
A few things can be gleaned from the presentation. One is the degree to which a kind of anthropomorphism has been important to Paik's work from the start.
The great "TV Clock" is composed of two dozen television monitors, one for every hour of the day. Each hour is indicated by a single band of colored light that bisects each screen.
Perched atop tall pedestals arranged in the form of an arc, the TVs have been up-ended, so that the screen stands vertically rather than horizontally. The landscape implied by horizontality is replaced by a subtle suggestion of figurativeness, which is further enhanced by the height of the sculpture: Each of the 24 vertical elements is slightly taller than a person standing before it, with the neck-high pedestal reading as a "body," the glowing television as a "head."
Appropriately, in the 1960s Paik also constructed small, working robots. As the robotlike sculpture at Newport, "Chadwick a.k.a. Capek," attests, his interest in a fusion between the human and the technological continues.
"Chadwick" is constructed from 11 monitors stacked into a configuration of arms, legs, torso and head. It's significant that the monitors, which are new, have not been used straightforwardly. Instead, they've been concealed or cloaked--inserted into old-fashioned TV cabinets, made of wood.
The cabinets are pieces of domestic furniture. When television was launched and promoted in the 1940s and 1950s, TV sets comfortingly fabricated in the style of Colonial or Victorian furniture formed a mediating function between the rapidly advancing, futuristic world of electronics and the traditional world of the home.
As with Robby the Robot, the lovable android from the 1956 science-fiction movie, "Forbidden Planet," the task of humanizing ominous technology has been central to postwar pop culture. Robby was the precedent for the 1960s' robot-comedian on TV's "Lost in Space," while R2-D2 and C3PO acted as the electronic Laurel and Hardy of 1977's "Star Wars."
More importantly, by inserting new innards into old forms, Paik insists that television has radically altered the very nature of human beings. The disorienting merger of the human and the technological is further implied by the show's two remaining works, which unabashedly take the form of devotional, reliquary shrines.
"Buddhamorphosis" and "Paranature," both from 1992, also encase stacks of television monitors inside furniture. Now, however, the furnishings are elaborately carved and painted panels taken from Asian cupboards and chests (they look Indonesian). "Buddhamorphosis" is further decorated with temple puppets, while "Paranature" is flanked by light boxes for the display of old-fashioned, glass slides showing global tourist-views: Egypt, South Africa, Russia, New Guinea.
Both sculptures are framed in remnants of commercial signs--flashing stars and arrows, or one that beckons passers-by to "Stop-Look." The contemplative aura of an ancient shrine melds with the honky-tonk glamour of a modern video arcade.
The brightly colored, fast-paced imagery whizzing across the TV screens emphasizes this mix. Dazzlingly complex programs, created with the aid of an electronic synthesizer, the imagery is woven into a four-dimensional mandala of colored light that makes MTV's ostensibly high-tech style look stodgy and wan. Formally, Paik's programs are hypnotic.
The one, not insubstantial weakness in the programs is that their content is largely restricted to this formal function. The specific images Paik selects for synthesizing frequently catalogue appropriate visual associations for the sculpture (tourist views in "Paranature," for example). Yet, the specific images almost seem incidental, as if the program playing in one sculpture could be replaced with a program from any other, without serious effect.
You're simply meant to stare, lost in the totalizing space of electronic light.
The idea of electronic space, which is these sculptures' most intriguing quality, was first heralded in Paik's art 30 years ago. "TV Clock" is one important example. Space is traditionally a sculptor's principal material, and the newly emergent continuum between electronic time and electronic space is manifest in "TV Clock."
As always, Paik beckons forth the past as prologue to this work. The configuration of an open arc for the curving row of 24 pedestals and monitors does not mimic the closed circle of a modern mechanical clock. Instead, the arc recalls the placement of time's hours on the age-old device of a sundial.
The revolution for the present age is that the light of nature has been replaced as an ordering principle for our lives by the electronic light of TV. A profound, elegant and audacious sculpture, "TV Clock" coaxes out as much contemplative wonder as anything the artist has ever done.
* Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 759-1122, through June 27. Closed Mondays.