It is a well-known fact that one of the most important and rewarding aspects of sensual pleasure is the anticipation. In full knowledge of this on the evening I arrived at the Gagosian Gallery in Central to see the first exhibition in Hong Kong of the work of Nam June Paik, I deliberately delayed entering the exhibition space by accepting a glass of champagne and calmly reading the press releases in the reception area. After around 15 minutes and suitably primed I then decided it was time to see the work.
I first became aware of Paik’s work in 1977/78 during the foundation course I attended at Jacob Kramer College of Art in the UK (now renamed Leeds College of Art) but I hadn’t had the opportunity of experiencing much of his work since that time so this was a genuine pleasure for me.
As it states in the gallery’s press release Paik’s work represents a ‘lifelong exploration of the role of technology in culture’ and Gagosian’s exhibition of Paik’s work illustrated this perfectly. Sometimes playful or comical, sometimes critical, displaying a subjective personal view one minute and then becoming almost cynically objective the next Paik explores mankind’s experience of life that has today become inseparable from communicative media and the technology that allows the universal spread of information, whether useful or not.
There were so many highlights in the show but if I had to select one for comment it would have to be Golden Buddha, 2005. A gilded bronze Buddha sits serenely on a white platform as if intently watching a colour television set that broadcasts the image of the Buddha’s own head by means of the Closed-circuit video camera positioned directly above the TV screen. The video camera focuses tightly on the Buddha’s face. It feels too close. We can see nothing on the screen apart from the face of the Buddha, is it a fragment of a Buddha?, is it whole Buddha?, the location is a mystery, the context is totally lost.
Is this Paik’s commentary on the way the media distorts reality, or on the way it selects which parts of the real story it will relay to the viewer? When we appreciate another culture, we attempt to be respectful, we are careful not to offend by misreading culturally embedded symbols and yet in this piece of work by Paik, the camera doesn’t record what the gallery viewer sees, it ignores the entirety of the scene and selects only the face to zoom in on.
Is this Paik’s intention? Maybe it is, maybe not. As an artist myself I feel the most important function of an artwork is to throw out these questions. For me this is one of, and probably the main function of a work of art: to ask questions. I came away from this exhibition thinking about these subjects, all provoked by Paik’s work. Unfortunately Paik may have left us but his work is still very much alive and it continues to ask questions of us all.
Golden Buddha, 2005
Bakelite Robot, 2002
359 Canal Street, 1991
Chinese Memory, 2005