Get Your Eyes Checked: Reflecting on Nam Jun Paik’s “Eagle Eye”

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In early September 1964, my parents took me to the eye doctor for the first time. Only a few days before this appointment, I had come home from school completely baffled. With rows of desks and alphabetical seating, the teacher called our names and we took our places. My desk was in the far right back of the room. To begin, we were told to work on the assignment written on the chalkboard. All around me, the other children in the class were pulling paper from their desk, asking if they might sharpen their pencils, and getting down to work. I could not imagine why. There was nothing written on the board. How did they know what to do? I could not see the soft white letters. For me, they did not exist.

Nam_June_Paik_260x260My earliest memory of doctors and their offices is embodied in the eye chart that stands as the body/center of Eagle Eye by Nam June Paik. It calls this memory out of me, and with it, a reflection on the capacity of objects to prompt memory and promote new visions. Once I was tested and fitted for corrective lenses, the whole, soft world came into harder focus. To this day, I cannot see an eye chart without remembering that next “eye opening” day at school, when suddenly, so many things made sense.

By 1996, when this work was made, Nam June Paik was already an established artist and a trailblazer in in electronic media, video art, and assemblage. Eagle Eye, created just ten years before his death in 2006, is at once a tribute to the vast landscape of America and a self-portrait. With its varied components—an antique slide projector, aluminum, computer keyboards, a bit of neon, nine five-inch televisions, two nine-inch televisions, one DVD player, and a DVD—Paik seems to be considering where we have come from and where we are headed, both visually and technologically. With the arrangement of found objects and constructed video footage, this work asks me to check my eyesight one more time: What am I unable to see? And why? Be sure to look closely into the lens of the slide projector… Who is it looking back at you?

This summer, come see Eagle Eye at the Ackland, and, if you have time, visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the retrospective exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. Like my little self on that next day at school, I am sure you will see things you have never seen before.

Nam June Paik, American, 1932-2006: Eagle Eye, 1996; antique slide projector, aluminum, computer keyboards, eye chart, neon, 9 five-inch televisions, 2 nine-inch televisions, DVD player, DVD. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund, 99.8.

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