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

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?