[Excerpt] The Aesthetic of Active Boredom in Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1964)


Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film in 2011 at the Paik Art Center in Gyeonggi-do

An old 16 mm film projector runs in front of a blank wall onto which it projects a screen of light, appearing all the more luminous as it makes a contrast to the whiteness of the adjacent museum walls. Small enough to be covered in shadow and disappear if one were to stand in front of the projector, the blank, luminous screen nonetheless creates an intimate space around it, forming a miniature version of a movie theater. About fourteen minutes in length, the film that produces the screen is completely blank. No visual figurations appear on the screen except for the flickering presence of almost invisible shades, produced by tiny specks of dust and scratches on the film strip. No soundtrack accompanies this blank film strip. Infiltrating the viewing space are only the surrounding humdrum of museum activities, accompanied by the quietly reeling sound of the projector, almost timid in nature when compared to that of a larger commercial projector. When the film is over, it begins all over again.


Paik’s Zen for Film, a minimalist work first shown in 1964 at Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in New York, seems like the most uncharacteristic among Paik’s oeuvre for its lack of representational experimentations on the visual screen. Zen for Film consists of three formal elements: the projector, the blank screen, the surrounding space. Neither frenetic collage-videos nor aural noise, elements which stand out in many of Paik’s works from the entire span of his artistic career, appear in Zen for Film. In place of image quotations from various sources, a Paikian practice, is a curiously blank screen. Looking at the blank screen, the viewer makes at least two interpretations. First, the blank screen negates visual representation altogether, either coherent or incoherent, positioning itself against the figurative image as a useful form of representation. Second, it represents non-representation itself, constructing a new kind of image that requires a new kind of gaze by the viewer. Regardless of which interpretation the viewer finds more compelling in the end, one can be certain about one effect that Zen for Film creates: it invites the audience to raise various issues with the problem of visual representation in the arts, namely the question of whether experimentations with visual language have been exhausted in the modern arts, and whether it is necessary for artists to invent a new kind of visual representation altogether. Indeed, Paik, throughout his oeuvre, relentlessly pursues this issue by adopting new visual methods that reflect changes in modern technology. For Paik, postmodernism’s lament of the depletion of new forms of expression seemed to have been irrelevant. There were infinitely new possibilities in creating new ways of expressing, not merely by combining past formal strategies and actually inventing one, a hope that he harbored with his invention of a video synthesizer with the Japanese technician Shuya Abe:

This [the Paik/Abe Synthesizer] will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollock and
as lyrically as Jasper Johns.[1]

Even in this brief quote, one has a strong sense that Paik did not harbor an apocalyptic attitude towards visual representation in the contemporary arts. Visuality was something to be embraced, not negated, in Paik’s oeuvre. Even though Paik’s Zen for Film appears to assume a detached position from his other works, it in fact remains closely connected to them by problematizing visual representation.

But at least two characteristics of Zen for Film make it distinct from other works by Paik: the ambiguity of its own very nature, and the uncertainty of the subject in experiencing it. When one first encounters Zen for Film, the first issue that arises is a basic interpretive one: through which artistic category or genre should we experience the work? One is uncertain as to what the primary object of one’s attention should be—is it the screen, the projector, the reeling sound of the film, or the whole installation site? The nature of Paik’s work and, correspondingly, the audience’s experience of it seem to remain insoluble. Does one experience Zen for Film as an installation work, a highly experimental work of cinéma du pauvre,[2] or both at once? In experiencing Zen for Film, is the viewer situated as a detached subject who can step outside the boundaries of the work, or is the viewer situated as an immersed subject subsumed under the film apparatus, akin to a conventional cinematic experience? Or, as incredible as it may sound, is the viewer completely left out of the picture altogether, the work itself forming its own hermetic relationship as suggested by the self-referential title of the work? Such lack of certainty as to the nature of Zen for Film and to the position of the subject are not so much riddles to be solved as the work’s important aesthetic qualities. Further, these ambiguities give rise to a particular state of mind, namely “active” boredom, that allows the viewer to attain a new kind of subjectivity in experiencing Paik’s work.


[1] The quote comes from the Nam June Paik Art Center’s website: http://www.njpartcenter.kr/en/njpaik/sayings.asp

[2] Herman Asselberghs uses the term “cinéma du pauvre” to describe Paik’s Zen for FilmZen for Film is not about the metaphysical void or the Euro-American sublime, nor about the Big Nothing. Instead, it’s about the next-to-nothing. It’s Jeanne Dielman leading her compulsive life, in which nothing ever happens, in real time […] Zen for Film is about the refusal to please an audience the easy way. It’s about deploying an anti-spectacle of poor aesthetics, stressing the enchanted materialism of people, thing and (cinematic) time itself. A nothing film made of nothing about ‘nothing’—exquisite cinéma du pauvre” (15).

For the full text, here.

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