Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Self-Portrait by Nam June Paik

The young WRO Center, devoted to new/media art, is hosting one of the first serious exhibitions of Nam June Paik's work since the artist's death in 2006.
This is not the largest exhibition, and fans of his complex multi-media installations might be disappointed - few of those are present here.
But if the budget did not allow to bring the lasers, projections, and intricate video circuits, the taste and knowledge of the organizers allows for a fascinating and multi-faceted look into Paik's creation.

Here is an example - Self-Portrait-Head, created in 1982.

On the TV screen, a young Nam June Paik stands facing the camera. His eyes are closed. Very slowly, his hand moves through the surface of his face, up and down. He is feeling his own face. The movement is slow and delicate, and after a while we realize he is not touching the face. The hand seems to know the face so well, this becomes a movement of recognition, as in, re-calling one's face. This is me. This heat emanating from the surface of my face, this is my boundary.

Facing the TV set is another face.

This one is a sculpture. A metal cast of the artist's face, made many years later. He is an older man now, and it takes some imagination to become convinced this is the same person. His eyes are closed, and the gesture is similar to the one on the recording.

They are looking at each other with their eyes shut. They are feeling each other - as they are the very same. Time has gone by, and yet stands still, trapped in the matter, the reproduction, the loop.
They/he are/is having a conversation with them/him selves/self.
The young man is moving, as if unable to realize his movement is still. The old man is cast, he is immobile, he is the return of the sculpture, the mimetic power of art, the noble texture of statue. He is the deathmask of the other, his self. And yet, he is life-size, he is freed of the flatness and squareness, he is a real fragment, as if ripped away off the face, a witness. And yet, he is facing the TV, as if watching it, or feeling it with his unmoving gesture.
It is clear, here, that the Narcissus' myth got it all wrong. The reflection is not a risk - it is a reality we may wish to ignore, but that will remain nonetheless, echoing our past in a loop that designs the warm and uncertain borders of identity.
Watching this installation reminds me of a curious definition of art: art works, to the extent to which it is the opening of poetry.

Zbigniew Herbert, I Would Like to Describe (fragment)

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain
The exhibition at the WRO Art Center in Wrocław, Poland, is open until January 25. I highly recommend a guided tour.