SANTA BARBARA — Anxiety abounds when you are about to install a work by Nam June Paik. The master of media art created works that are as ephemeral as they are transcendent, constructed out of TV sets and recording devices that are no longer manufactured and, needless to say, generally irreplaceable.
So when Charlie Wylie, Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Curator of Photography and New Media, decided to re-install Paik’s T.V. Clock after nearly 10 years of being off view at the museum, he just kept thinking: “I have 24 backups.”
Lucky for Wylie, all 24 original TV sets functioned as designed, with television technician guru, Darryl Widman, having to only mildly re-align the wiring as the artist intended.
T.V. Clock is created out of Samsung TV sets from the 1980s and mounted upright on black pedestals, placed in a gentle arc across the exhibition space. Rather than have the TVs play from a videotape or disk, Paik manipulated their wiring so that a straight white line appears on each screen. Viewed together, the lines simulate the hands of a clock, each screen representing an hour of time, statically rotating its way across the installation.
For Paik, the television was an aesthetic tool through which to consider questions about time and reproducibility and how telecommunications shape our understanding of history and culture. Throughout his work, he considered what the TV was and what it could become, tackling both the technical and conceptual question of how information travels through clever manipulations of electronic media.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Wylie stated, “T.V. Clock is more meditative of Paik’s works. It is a quieter aspect in his larger oeuvre that takes you out of a normal viewing role.” Indeed, walking into the installation feels almost like walking into a sacred space. The gallery is painted a dark shade of gray so the glow of the screens becomes irresistible. While the work is created out of silent, static lines, the screens feel animated, as if they are about to move (a very Muybridge-like quality, Wylie observed). And displayed at human-level, each screen conveys a life-size presence that feels relatable and transfixing. As Wylie pointed out, it’s a work that you approach, rather than look up to.
And upon approaching, much more is revealed. Up-close, the single white line is actually a set of thinner, colorful lines — one red, one green, and one blue. The beginning and end of the installation is also not strictly defined; it depends on where one enters from. The gallery’s ambiance makes the viewing experience feel temporal — a contrast against the work’s own artificiality. Importantly, Paik wanted the TVs to be seen as TVs — for viewers to feel the presence of them. While from afar the monitors may be understood as frames, up-close the commonness of the TV set, from its on/off buttons to its branding, is front and center.
Today, Paik’s cultural observations are more relevant than ever. As cellphones have become an extension of our bodies, the question of how the concept of time has altered in the 21st century consistently changes. What does it mean to be glued to the screen today versus in the 1980s? What does repetition and reproducibility mean in the age of the internet? Inviting viewers into a meditative state, T.V. Clock is a quietly monumental work through which to contemplate the cultural implications of electronic media.
And for T.V. Clock’s own conservation, the question of time is also crucial. Debates on conserving and restoring works by Paik are widespread, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum devoting an entire symposium to the topic in 2013. Museums are increasingly thinking about ways to curate and conserve time-based media works, as important examples from the late 20th century — by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Jason Rhodes, and Vito Acconci — have already or are just about to approach critical points in their lifespan and legacy.
As these conversations continue, T.V. Clock reminds us that originality is not always the point. Paik himself re-worked the piece’s original 1963 installation with new monitors in the 1980s, demonstrating that the work’s concept is more important than the objects composing it. What to do with the work’s components when they no longer turn on is a serious question, but, at least for now, it is one for T.V. Clock’s future.
Nam June Paik: TV Clock continues at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State St, Santa Barbara) through October 14.