– Autumn/Winter 2009

Beyond the Appearance of Imagelessness: Preliminary Notes on Zen for Film’s Enchanted Materialism

Herman Asselberghs

Nam June Paik, Zen for Film, 1962-62, 16mm film installation, 20 min. From 'Jonas Mekas Presents Flux Party, Rio Cinema, London, 2008. Photograph: Mark Webber

The college librarian raises her eyebrows when I tell her the stack of books I am taking out is to help me gather some thoughts on a monochrome white film. It is not so much the discrepancy between the volumes of printed matter and the minimum of information in the abstract work that amazes her. Rather, the idea that a blank screen can find an audience and even a critic evokes incredulous laughter. And when I explain the gist of my text to more willing ears, I am greeted with non-verbal cues not all that different: incredulity, mild scepticism and, once, firm dismissal. As if a blank film is a closed case from the start, one that doesn't or shouldn't require any further expenditure of words, and certainly no actual screening. What, I wonder, is so strange about a film showing 'nothing'? Why wouldn't we want to watch it?

The piece in question is, of course, Zen for Film (1962-64), Nam June Paik's famous,infamous, first (and rare) cinematographic work. A film with no script, no narrative,no sets, no actors, no sound, no camera, no montage - but with screen and projector,and most certainly on film. Zen for Film is an unexposed strip of film run througha projector, which produces a more or less white image on screen. The more the strip passes through the mechanism, the more it deteriorates and the more scratches, smudges and dust particles appear on the 'empty' screen. When Paik is present the original version can last up to twenty or thirty minutes, with the artist stationed immediately in front of the screen, silent and immobile, his back turned to

  1. John Cage, '45 for a Speaker', Silence, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p.191

  2. Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2008, p.47.

  3. 'Il est le premier à avoir pris au sérieux (mais il y avait eu Dziga Vertov) que le hors-champ d'une image n'est plus dans la scène attenante mais dans n'importe quelle autre image en circulation au même moment dans la mémoire vive des autres.' Serge Daney, L'Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur, Paris: P.O.L, 1993, p.67.

  4. David T. Doris, 'Zen Vaudeville: A Medi(t)ation in the Margins of Fluxus', in Ken Friedman (ed.), The Fluxus Reader, Chichester: Academy Editions, 1998, p.94.

  5. Ibid. , p.101.

  6. Ibid.

    , p.93.

  7. Jonas Mekas, 'Spiritualization of the Image' (25 June 1964), Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema 1959-1971, New York: Collier Books, 1972, p.145.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid. , p.146.

  10. J. Mekas, 'On New Directions, on Anti-Art, on the Old and the New in Art' (11 November 1965), Movie Journal, op. cit. , p.208.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid., p.209.

  13. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1995, p.16.

  14. Giorgio Agamben, 'Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord's Films', in Tanya Leighton (ed.), Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, London: Tate Publishing and Afterall Books, 2008, p.333. Originally presented as a lecture at the Sixth International Video Week at the Centre Saint-Gervais, Geneva, November 1995. First published in Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2004.

  15. Ibid.

  16. D.T. Doris, 'Zen Vaudeville', op. cit., p.128.

  17. Michael Nyman, 'George Brecht: Interview', in Henry Martin (ed.), An Introduction to George Brecht's Book of the Tumbler on Fire, Milan: Multhipla, 1978, p.106. Originally published in Studio International > vol.192, no.984, November-December 1976, pp.256 -66.

  18. Fluxfilm Anthology, Re:Voir, VHS, 1998, 120min. Recently released by Re:Voir as a limited edition DVD titled Fluxfilm Anthology.