Has there been another contemporary artist as radical as Nam June Paik? It’s a rhetorical question—there have been many radical artists—but one could make a case for Paik’s singular inventiveness. He crossed boundaries both physical and virtual and coined the phrase “electronic superhighway,” presaging the interconnectedness that characterizes our lives today.
This exhibition sets out to both survey Paik’s multifaceted contribution to the avant-garde and demonstrate his continued relevance. On both counts, it is a great success. In myriad ways, Paik extended media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous 1964 pronouncement, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan believed that media are technological extensions of the body. Paik agreed, writing in 1967 that “the merging of art and technology should end in the merging of artist and technician into one person.”1
Paik was born in 1932 in Japanese-occupied Seoul, Korea, into a well-to-do family who later fled to Japan to escape the Korean War. Paik, already familiar with new music through Japanese-educated Korean tutors, studied at the University of Tokyo, wrote his thesis on Arnold Schoenberg, continued his training in musicology and art history in Munich, and in Darmstadt attended lectures by John Cage, which changed his life. “My life began one evening in August 1958 in Darmstadt,” he said. “1957 was 1 BC (Before Cage). 1947 was the year 10 BC. Plato lived in 2500 BC and not 500 BC [Before Christ].”2
Eventually, Paik made New York his home base, but he was never in one place for long. He was just as restless intellectually and artistically, moving seamlessly from one discipline to another as is demonstrated in this comprehensive presentation that features film, video, sculpture, performance documentation, installation, sound, and works on paper, all given ample space.
The exhibition begins with two silent videos of Paik performing simple actions. In the first, shot on the day he acquired his first video camera, he slowly buttons and unbuttons his shirt. In the second, he covers his face with his hands, one of several gestures he performed to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music as part of Originale, a 1961 happening documented in a side gallery.
In the first galleries we are introduced to some of Paik’s iconic works and to themes that occur throughout his oeuvre, including the interrelationships of technology, the body, nature, and the merging of Eastern and Western philosophies. The latter is simply and evocatively expressed in his iconic TV Buddha. In its first incarnation in 1974, Paik positioned an 18th-century wooden statue of the Buddha facing an image of itself on a TV screen so that the Buddha is both the viewer and the object being viewed. In Living Buddha, not presented here but shown in the international exhibition Projekt ’74, Paik eliminated the statue and placed himself before the TV, meditating for hours in front of his own on-screen image, “as if transcendence and technology had united in one person.”3 Paik understood early on that the TV screen would rival the canvas, if not replace it, hence the popular appellation “the father of video art.”
Next, we encounter one of Paik’s prepared pianos shown alongside a video of another keyboard being played. Cage pioneered the prepared piano to alter the sound of the instrument by inserting bolts, screws, and other small objects on or in between the strings. Paik’s reinterpretation is bolder. In place of the small objects of the type Cage used, Paik festooned the piano shown in the video with photos, toys, a tape recorder, and other unexpected items. Unlike Cage, Paik invited audience members to play the instrument, erasing the boundary between artist and audience. This audience involvement is addressed later in the exhibition in a gallery titled Live Feed devoted to works in which visitors are invited to be producers rather than consumers. For example, in Three Camera Participation (1969), three closed-circuit cameras, each connected to one of the three colors of the video signal, are pointed at the viewer who can then interact with them in real time.
Paik came to Zen Buddhism not through his Asian heritage but through Cage, who had attended D. T. Suzuki’s classes at Columbia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Zen is the connecting thread in much of Paik’s work. Another early piece, Zen for TV (1953), consists of a 19-inch TV on its side that displays a static, vertical white line, the result of a circuit in the cathode ray tube that had been damaged in shipping. Like Marcel Duchamp and Cage before him, Paik embraced chance.
Before portable video equipment became available in the mid-1960s, Paik began his experiments with television by manipulating the broadcast signal.4 For example, he achieved psychedelic visual distortions by simply placing a strong magnet on top of a television set, as in Magnet TV (1965). In a somewhat more complicated instance, TV Crown of the same year, he attached a TV to audio generators and an amplifier and rewired the monitor so that the resulting patterns came from audio waves rather than from a broadcast or video signal. From 1969 to 1971, Paik worked with Shuya Abe on a video synthesizer that enabled the manipulation of multiple electronic images in real time. Once he obtained a video camera, Paik produced original imagery that he often interspersed with broadcast or film content.
The exhibition highlights Paik’s practice of collaborating with others—he worked or intersected with just about every leading avant-garde artist and musician of the time. Besides Cage and Stockhausen, a partial list includes Merce Cunningham, Joseph Beuys, and Charlotte Moorman. A section of the exhibition provides extensive documentation of Paik’s participation in Fluxus events, including the first Neo–Dada in der Musik, which took place in Düsseldorf on June 16, 1962. Paik performed One for Violin, smashing a violin in a ritual act of musical destruction, one of several such instances of instruments being destroyed.5
Paik’s homages to Cage are duly recognized. Both were classically trained musicians who challenged the very definition of their discipline. Cage embraced ambient sound as music most famously in his 1952 piano composition 4’33”. Paik’s composition Sinfonie for 20 Rooms (1961/1974) featured various sounds as well as smells and performances in different rooms. In 1962 Paik asked, “Why is it music? Because it is not ‘not music,’” adding elsewhere, “I have resigned the performance of music. I expose the music.”6
Paik pays tribute to Cage in a TV robot, John Cage Robot ll (1995), a form Paik invented in which he arranged TV monitors to suggest a human body. It shares a gallery with a similar video sculpture dedicated to Cage’s lifelong partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, to whom Paik accords co-authorship. In both, Paik inserted cathode ray tube monitors into vintage radio cabinets that played manipulated imagery related to their subject. In the first, the artist augments video clips with piano keys, mushrooms, chess pieces, and other objects related to the composer. In the second, Merce/Digital (1988), the arrangement of TVs with excerpts of Cunningham dancing resembles a dance pose. These jaunty robot sculptures are examples of Paik’s humor that often appears when you least expect it.
Another frequent collaborator was Joseph Beuys, who Paik greatly admired and with whom he performed many times. Their final collaborative performance was a piano duet titled Coyote lll (1984), a reference to earlier Beuys performances featuring a live coyote. Here it is presented as a large projection in its own gallery. On stage, Paik plays Chopin on the piano; a second piano stands nearby, unplayed. Instead, Beuys intones guttural sounds and words into a microphone. Although separated by age and nationality, the two artists shared an interest in Western and Eastern philosophies, the relationship between humans and nature, and science and spirituality.7 While Beuys’s approach was pedagogical and shamanistic, Paik was less focused than Beuys on his own persona.
The exhibition fittingly devotes a large area to Paik’s 30-year-long association with cellist Charlotte Moorman. Moorman, classically trained and actively involved in the world of experimental music, was a willing partner in Paik’s eccentric installation/performances. Oil Drums, Hommage à Charlotte Moorman (1964/1992), which Paik made in memory of Moorman, who died in 1991, is represented by a stack of two oil drums and an accompanying video that documents Paik’s Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens. In it, Moorman played the opening bars of the 1886 composition before scaling a ladder to lower herself into a water-filled drum. With typical aplomb, she descended and continued playing. The exhibition documents many of their other collaborations, including the oft-performed TV Cello (1971) and the notorious TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), in which Moorman plays her instrument wearing two small TVs attached to her bare chest.
No Paik retrospective exhibition would be complete without his dazzling TV Garden, first created in 1974. In a dimly lit gallery, visitors are confronted with 49 televisions embedded within an arrangement of live potted plants. The monitors display Paik’s music video Global Groove, created with John Godfrey in 1973, which splices imagery from commercial TV, avant-garde performance, Allen Ginsberg chanting, and classical music from around the world. Consistent with Paik’s investment in Buddhist philosophy, TV Garden is a visual and aural demonstration of the coexistence of electronics and nature.
The exhibition culminates with Sistine Chapel, shown for the first time since it was installed in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale. It’s a thrilling, immersive image and sound installation that covers the walls and ceiling of a large gallery. Paik replaced Michelangelo’s biblical scenes with a dizzying collage of mass-media electronic imagery—we see and hear David Bowie and Janis Joplin, among other pop stars––as well as excerpts from Paik’s work, all speeding by, overlapping and repeating. What might have been assaultive is unexpectedly mesmerizing. The final work on view is as sublime as Sistine Chapel is raucous. In One Candle (Candle Projection) (1989) a closed-circuit camera points at a flickering flame, evoking both Buddhist meditative practice and Catholic ritual.
There are far too many works to address here, and to absorb them all, you may need to make more than one visit. I recommend the excellent scholarly catalogue that accompanies the show and a look at the museum’s website, which includes a selection of videos and other materials for those who want to dig deeper into Paik’s extraordinary career.
Fittingly, the only U.S. presentation of the exhibition is taking place in the Bay Area, the home of Silicon Valley. Paik emerged as an artist in the 1960s, the start of what became known as the counterculture, characterized by antiwar protests and challenges to established institutions with an eye toward a more equitable and peaceful future. Thirty years later, the birth of the internet made possible a global communication network that was intended make this dream a reality. Since Paik’s died in 2006, the adverse side of that dream has become painfully evident. This exhibition is not only about Paik’s genius, which is undisputable, but also about a time when everything seemed possible.
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Nam June Paik @ the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through October 3, 2021.
1. Nam June Paik, quoted in Sook-Kyung Lee, “Nam June Paik: Transforming Cultures, Connecting the World,” in Lee and Rudolf Frieling, Nam June Paik (exh. cat.), 48.
2. Quoted in Liviu Tanasoaica, “Beyond Cage: Nam June Paik.”
3. Quoted in Leontine Coelowij,“TV Buddha,” in Lee and Frieling, Nam June Paik, 141.
4. The Sony Portapak was released on the U.S. market in 1967, although in Tokyo, Paik might have had access to the camera as early as 1965. Rudolf Frieling, email message to the author, May 23, 2021.
5. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix was aware of this when he lit his guitar on fire in 1967.
6. Quoted in SFMOMA Exhibition Guide.
7. Paik expressed his admiration for Beuys by dedicating several works to him after his death in 1986. The catalogue essay by Sook-Kyung Lee expands on their relationship. Sook-Kyung Lee, “Becoming a Shaman,” in Lee and Frieling, Nam June Paik, 13.
Cover image: (Detail) TV Garden, 1974–77/2002 (installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
About the author:
Constance Lewallen is adjunct curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), where she served first as MATRIX curator and subsequently as senior curator. At BAMPFA, she organized many major exhibitions, including Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) (2001); Everything Matters: Paul Kos, a Retrospective (2003); Ant Farm 1968–1978 (with Steve Seid) (2004); A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s (2007); State of Mind: New California Art ca. 1970 (with Karen Moss) (2011), and many others. Recently, she co-curated Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End at the Manetti Shrem Museum, UC Davis, and Nothing to Sell: The Reese Palley Gallery (with Jordan Stein) at Cushion Works in San Francisco. Lewallen is author of 500 Capp Street: David Ireland’s House and coauthor (with Dore Bowen) of Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters, both published by UC Press.