Original Creators: Nam June Paik
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Nam June Paik.
Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence. – Nam June Paik
Heralded as the “father of video art,” Korean-born artist Nam June Paik‘s contribution to the world of media art can not be overstated. As one of the first artists to explore the creative potential of television, video recording, and the implications these technological developments held for the electronic moving image, Paik laid the groundwork for several generations of video arts and media artists to follow, and began an ongoing critical dialog regarding our culture’s ever-growing fascination with television and media.
Paik didn’t start out with an interest in the moving image, rather, music was his first love. After his family fled Korea during the Korean War, they made their way to Japan (by way of Hong Kong) where Paik eventually studied music and art history at University of Tokyo, writing his graduation thesis on the experimental music composer Arnold Schoenberg. Moving to Germany to continue his studies, Paik was fated to cross paths with another seminal experimental composer, John Cage, who was at the time a leading participant in the burgeoning Fluxus movement, an international “intermedia” artistic movement that challenged traditional notions of art and art-making practices in favor of a more performance-based, cross-disciplinary, and process-oriented approach.
With a new investment in the electronic arts, inspired in a large part by his association with Cage, Paik began experimenting with manipulating the moving image, exploring its expressive and compositional capacities through performances and, most famously, sculptures and installations comprised of TV monitors. From robots composed of discarded TV and radio parts to colossal installations that utilized as many as 1,003 monitors towering 60 ft in height, to collaborating with Japanese designer Shuya Abe on creating the first video synthesizer, Paik repeatedly demonstrated a profound ingenuity when dealing with both the physical and aesthetic properties of video.
TV Cello (1964)
Paik’s earliest works attempted to stay true to his original vocation of music, seeking to merge the two mediums and explore their symbiotic relationship. Upon moving to NYC in 1964, Paik began collaborating with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman. TV Cello was the first of a series of works they would produce together, typically with Paik constructing fanciful instruments or devices for Moorman to play. The video above shows Moorman with a later iteration of the TV Cello being interviewed by George Plimpton during the Good Morning, Mr. Orwell broadcast on January 1, 1984 (see below).
Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)
On New Year’s Day in 1984 Paik staged an international “installation” in response to George Orwell’s dystopian model of the future as portrayed in 1984. In “installation” was in fact a live public television broadcast that linked WNET TV in NYC with broadcasters in Paris (at the Centre Pompidou), Germany and South Korea. The broadcast assembed an all-star crew of artists from all disciplines, including: John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Philip Glass, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Beuys, Allen Ginsberg, and Oingo Boingo.
The More The Better (1988)
Although Paik was more an international artist than a South Korean one, he never lost a sense of affinity for his birthplace. One week before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he staged another monumental satellite link-up broadcast, this time enlisting over ten countries from around the globe and attracting some 50 million viewers. A centerpiece of this international “installation” was a wedding-cake like sculpture comprised of several tiers of television monitors (1,003 of them, to be exact) and steel. The 3-channel video sculpture was installed in the Seoul Museum of Art where it was surrounded by drummers who performed during the broadcast.
Paik’s long, prolific and influential career extended well into the late 90s until a stroke left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound in 1996. But throughout the entirety of his active years, he continued to push the boundaries of video as an artistic medium, with some of his last works employing laser technology in a series of “post-video” installations. As John Hanhardt, curator of Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim wrote in his catalog essay on the occasion of Nam June Paik’s retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2000:
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Paik’s work shows us that the cinema and video are fusing with electronic and digital media into new image technologies and forms of expression. The end of video and television as we know them signals a transformation of our visual culture.