NAM JUNE PAIK'S
Where do new ideas come from? Korean artist Nam June Paik had a career spanning five decades that never stopped being innovative. What made his work so special is how it fused and crossed the boundaries between media; he worked with performance, technology, video, music and sculpture in constantly perspective-altering ways. Paik saw and predicted how moving image and technology would become inherently embedded into daily human existence.
Nam June Paik, Chinese Memory, 2005 - Single-channel video (color, silent) in vintage television cabinet with permanent oil marker, acrylic, record cover, scroll, antennae, and books
81 x 55 x 44 inches © Nam June Paik Estate
Nam June Paik veered from zen-inspired calm to noise-fuelled revolution. He combined Western avant-garde ideas and methodology with Eastern philosophy and aesthetics. 15 years after his death, it is clear how many of his ideas have become part of not just the world of art and high culture but have been absorbed into society.
Top: Nam June Paik, Self-Portrait, 2005 - Cathode-ray tube television casing with 10-inch liquid crystal display monitor and
permanent oil marker, video, single channel, 4:3 format, colour, sound. Collection of © Estate of Nam June Paik Photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Above: George Maciunas and Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, 1964,offset print on paper, 28 x 21.5 cm, Collection of Peter Wenzel, Germany
This fundamental part of his approach perhaps grew out of his foundation in music. He was a trained pianist before he and his family left Korea for Tokyo during the war in the 1950s, where he studied aesthetics and music at university. After graduating, he worked with the composers Thrasybulus Georgiades and Wolfgang Fortner in Germany. Here he met Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, who became a fundamental influence and close friend throughout his life. Paik’s first major sound piece was Hommage a John Cage (1959), using tape to create a sound collage of screaming, classical music and effects. Paik became a central figure in the Fluxus sound movement, pushing performance’s limits into noise and action.
Top: Nam June Paik, Merce by Merce by Paik: Part One: Blue Studio: Five Segments, 1975-1976. Video, single channel, 4:3 format, colour, sound, 15 min 38 sec.
© Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York | Above: Nam June Paik, Sistine Chapel, 1993 reconstructed 2021. Collection of Ulsan Art Museum.
Installation view at San Francisco of Modern Art. Courtesy of the Estate of Nam June Paik Photo: Andria Lo
Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture at the Art Gallery of
New South Wales in 1976 as part of Kaldor Public Art Project ‘Moorman + Paik’. National Art
Archive Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: © AGNSW, Kerry Dundas
Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 2003 - Single-channel video, two LCD monitors, one CRT monitor,
acrylic, plexiglass, metal, wood, rubber, cables, solid state media player, remote, power converter,
adapter, power amplifier and two speakers - Overall Dimensions Variable © Nam June Paik Estate
Another long-term musical collaborator was Charlotte Moorman, whom the artist met when the Fluxus movement took him to New York in the early 1960s. The pair created some of his most notorious works. They were arrested for indecency for the work Sexatronique (1967), where Moorman stripped while playing the cello. She wore a bikini made of small television screens for Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), and was able to change video footage with pedals. In TV Cello (1971), the instrument itself was made of three piled up TVs, which streamed video footage while Moorman played amplified electronic strings. Their work transformed the idea of sculpture into something truly alive. Paik’s late partner Shigeko Kubota also incorporated digital into her visual arts exploring the many realms of this medium. Exploration in digital medium in Paik’s circles was ever-present.
Nam June Paik, Golden Buddha, 2005 - Closed-circuit video (color) with television and bronze
Buddha with permanent oil marker additions 46 1/2 x 106 x 31 3/4 inches © Nam June Paik Estate
Nam June Paik, Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand, 2005 - Single-channel video
(color, silent) with televisions, closed-circuit video (color), and wood Buddha with
permanent oil marker additions, Overall Dimensions Variable © Nam June Paik Estate
While music was Paik’s first area of focus, technology became his signature. No other artist worked with televisions so constantly or creatively. Zen for TV (1963) reduced the TV stream to a single line. Magnet TV (1965) placed a magnet on the TV top, so viewers could move and distort the picture. TV Buddha (1974) was a small statue in front a closed-circuit camera so that Buddha was in constant calm reflection of himself on screen. Paik placed TVs in a sea of plants, like animals in a jungle. He emptied out sets and inserted a single candle. He worked on massive collaborative global broadcasts in the 1980s, bringing people like Laurie Anderson and David Bowie on board. Also, he and Japanese engineer Shuya Abe created the first video synthesizer. These are just a taster of Paik’s projects and it is impossible to underestimate his importance in pioneering video material as artworks. Paik once stated, “video is a white paper, a tabula rasa”. It was a form that never stopped inspiring him.
Nam June Paik, Candle TV, 1991 - 2003 Vintage metal television housing with permanent oil marker
and lit candle 15 x 16 3/8 x 14 7/8 inches © Nam June Paik Estate
Nam June Paik, John Cage Robot II, 1995 - Crystal Bridges has become the Museum of American Art,
Bentonville, Arkansas, 2011.17. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.
Paik and Abe’s collaboration also took physical, as well as audio visual form. They made Robot K-456, a remote control, moving sculptural figure out of a loudspeaker, fabric, metal parts and a data recorder. The robot was hit by a car and destroyed as a performance during his retrospective at the Whitney in 1982. Robot-like figures made from old TVs, radios, antennae, reel to reel tapes and other defunct technological elements became an ongoing work towards the end of his life. These playful video sculptures highlighted how the artist saw the division between the human and the technological disappearing, as he once noted “technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence”.
Paik described himself as a communication artist. He came up with the term “electronic superhighway” and quietly predicted the age of the internet. Embedded in his unique practise was a sense of optimism. For Paik, technology could lead to global peace and connection. Media could be idealistic. The future in his eyes was bright.
Nam June Paik, Bakelite Robot, 2002 - Single-channel video (color, silent) with LCD monitors and vintage
Bakelite radios, 48 x 50 x 7 3/4 inches © Nam June Paik Estate
Nam June Paik, TV Garden, 1974-77, reconstructed 2002 - Live plants, cathode-ray tube televisions, and video, colour, sound. Collection of
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf Installation view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 8 - October 3, 2021.
Text: Francesca Gavin
Images: Courtesy Nam June Paik Estate