Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Hannah Higgins reviews Revisions

Hanna B. Hölling. Revisions: Zen for Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 100 pp.

Review by Hannah Higgins

4 May 2016

Hanna B. Hölling’s book offers a wild ride through a whodunit of sorts, as she describes in vivid detail her practical efforts to exhibit and understand a single artwork for an exhibition at BGC gallery in the fall of 2015. Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film is, at its simplest, a movie consisting of blank film leader that accumulates traces of dust, scratches, hair, and discolorations with time and through the process of the film’s continuous projection.  The original made in 1964 as either a loop or a linear film is lost, and the later original (?) can’t be seen. It’s too old and brittle. The Museum of Modern Art and the artist’s estate have strict rules for how substitute film is used (one at a time per geographical region), even as Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) rents out a video version, and George Maciunas (with Paik’s permission) fabricated several smaller loops for handheld projectors in his famous Fluxkits in the 1960s–1970s. For art historians and curators, the matter of who authored an artwork is habitually based on who made the work (the who and the it in Hölling’s whodunit).[1]

Hölling was trained as a conservationist, and her detective story is knit together in uniquely concrete terms, even as she seeks to locate Paik in the community of artists and vast avant-garde traditions within which he worked, the evolving tide of video-versus-film-versus-performance artists active at the time and contemporary art theory. The ten quick chapters, the Revisions for which the book is named, move at breakneck speed from an overview of Zen in the avant-garde and Paik’s background with John Cage, to media archeology (and the strain these particular materials put the notion of the art work under) and a sequence of theoretical chapters toward the end on distributed authorship, process and the idea of originality and authenticity. Zen for Film, she concludes, “might be grasped as an event (a nonrepeatable cinematic event), a performance (a performed spectacle, dependent on the length of the viewers engagement), a process (accumulating traces while it is projected), and an object (an apparatus, filmic props, Fluxfilms, and filmic remnant/relic)” (p. 84).

The challenge this opening-up of the object and its authorial framework implies for conservationists is immense. “Rather than assigning regenerative capabilities to conservation,” Hölling writes, “the conservator would instigate just another change in the work in its long- or short-duration existence. . . . An artwork’s own archive, dependent on the culture of conservation, establishes rules and sets limits on what can be said or made, with reference to the present as well as the past” (p. 85).

As it turns out, Paik’s Zen for Film is a conspiracy of sorts. The who implicates virtually everyone; the it undermines many of our collective assumptions about art and media. This begs the question, is it a conspiracy if everyone involved is on it. 

[1] The book might have benefited from a broader understanding of Maciunas’s often contested director role relative to the many artists he worked with and tried to control. However, this difference in our understanding of Fluxus, notwithstanding, is not central to the core task at hand.