Somewhere, in the noise and delicious chaos of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Nam June Paik exhibition, the Korean-born trailblazer of video art can be seen on a screen saying this: “I would rather be corrupted than repeat the sublime.”
It is said in thickly accented but charming English, and it has the mix of impishness and obscurantism that made Paik an elusive and beloved figure, the holy fool and village idiot of contemporary art a half-century ago. But it is a canny estimate of his own work, so smart in its summation that it makes his “corrupted” later works, the glitzy, wall-sized video displays that used dozens of monitors for minimal impact seem less superficial, less trivial than they did 10 or 15 years ago. It tells us that Paik not only recognized and understood what he had become, he understood its inevitability, made his peace with it and, in that bit of refreshing honesty, Paik’s candor completes his trajectory as an artist in a way that is almost redemptive.
Unfortunately, the basic architecture of the new exhibition, which is built around the Nam June Paik archive acquired by the museum in 2009, puts the “corruption” upfront, with one large, late and rather vapid work creating a more powerful impression than the many smaller, nuanced and intellectually challenging pieces he made in the 1960s and ’70s. “Megatron/Matrix,” a permanent part of the museum’s collection, is installed in its own space, where it flashes and hypnotizes with a restless but exhausting energy, working too hard, yet never rising above the level of what one might see in a shopping mall in Shanghai or Dubai. It is a frenetic exercise in surface, and its occasional references to the centuries-long tradition of art history on which Paik grounded his best art — Courbet, Duchamp and the age-old tradition of the nude flit by — is too ephemeral to give it much gravitas. Basking in its lurid assault of color and motion, its images of flags and birds, and its relentless shifting patterns, one might forget the rest and best of Paik’s work, the pioneering videos, installation pieces and mock-reverent exploration of the television as a sacred icon.
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