PAIK, NAM JUNE

U.S. Video Artist

Nam June Paik--composer, performer, and video artist--played a pivotal role in introducing artists and audiences to the possibilities of using video for artistic expression. His works explore the ways in which performance, music, video images, and the sculptural form of objects can be used in various combinations to question our accepted notions of the nature of television.

Growing up in Korea, Nam June Paik studied piano and composition. When his family moved, first to Hong Kong and then to Japan, he continued his studies in music while completing a degree in aesthetics at the University of Tokyo. After graduating, Paik went to Germany to pursue graduate work in philosophy. There he became part of a group of Fluxus artists who were challenging established notions of what constituted art. Their work often found expression in performances and happenings that incorporated random events and found objects.

In 1959 Paik performed his composition Hommage a John Cage. This performance combined a pre-recorded collage of music and sounds with "on stage" sounds created by people, a live hen, a motorcycle, and various objects. Random events marked this and other Paik compositions. Instruments were often altered or even destroyed during the performance. Most performances were as much a visual as a musical experience.

As broadcast television programming invaded the culture, Paik began to experiment with ways to alter the video image. In 1963 he included his first video sculptures in an exhibition, Exposition of Music--Electronic Television. Twelve television sets were scattered throughout the exhibit space. The electronic components of these sets were modified to create unexpected effects in the images being received. Other video sculptures followed. Distorted TV used manipulation of the sync pulse to alter the image. Magnet TV used a large magnet which could be moved on the outside of the television set to change the image and create abstract patterns of light. Paik began to incorporate television sets into a series of robots. The early robots were constructed largely of bits and pieces of wire and metal; later ones were built from vintage radio and television sets refitted with updated electronic components.

Some of Paik's video installations involve a single monitor, others use a series of monitors. In TV Buddha a statue of Buddha sits facing its own image on a closed-circuit television screen. For TV Clock twenty-four monitors are lined up. The image on each is compressed into a single line with the lines on succeeding monitors rotated to suggest the hands of a clock representing each hour of the day. In Positive Egg the video camera is aimed at a white egg on a black cloth. In a series of larger and larger monitors, the image is magnified until the actual egg becomes an abstract shape on the screen.

In 1964 Paik moved to New York City and began a collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman to produce works combining video with performance. In TV Bra for Living Sculpture small video monitors became part of the cellist's costume. With TV Cello television sets were stacked to suggest the shape of the cello. As Moorman drew the bow across the television sets, images of her playing, video collages of other cellists, and live images of the performance area combined.

When the first consumer-grade portable video cameras and recorders went on sale in New York in 1965, Paik purchased one. Held up in a traffic jam created by Pope Paul VI's motorcade, Paik recorded the parade and later that evening showed it to friends at Cafe a Go-Go. With this development in technology it was possible for the artist to create personal and experimental video programs.

Paik was invited to participate in several experimental workshops including one at WGBH in Boston and another at WNET in New York City. The Medium is the Medium, his first work broadcast by WGBH, was a video collage that raised questions about who is in control of the viewing experience. At one point in a voice-over Paik instructed the viewers to follow his directions, to close or open their eyes, and finally to turn off the set. At WGBH Paik and electronics engineer Shuya Abe built the first model of Paik's video synthesizer which produced non-representational images. Paik used the synthesizer to accompany a rock-and-roll soundtrack in Video Commune and to illustrate Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. At WNET Paik completed a series of short segments, The Selling of New York, which juxtaposed the marketing of New York and the reality of life in the city. Global Groove, produced with John Godfrey, opened with an explanation that it was a "glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book." What followed was a rapid shift from rock-and-roll dance sequences to Allen Ginsberg to Charlotte Moorman with the TV cello to an oriental dancer to John Cage to a Navaho drummer to a Living Theatre performance. Throughout, the video image was manipulated by layering images, reducing dancers to a white line outlining their form against a wash of brilliant color, creating evolving abstract forms. Rapid edits of words and movements and seemingly random shifts in the backgrounds against which the dancers perform create a dreamlike sense of time and space.

Nam June Paik pioneered the development of electronic techniques to transform the video image from a literal representation of objects and events into an expression of the artist's view of those objects and events. In doing so, he challenges our accepted notion of the reality of televised events. His work questions time and memory, the nature of music and art, even the essence of our sensory experiences. Most significantly, perhaps, that work questions our experience, our understanding, and our definitions of "television."

-Lucy Liggett

 


Nam June Paik with "Piano Piece" (1993)
Photo courtesy of Holly Solomon Gallery, New York

NAM JUNE PAIK. Born in Seoul, Korea, 1932. Educated at the University of Tokyo, 1952-56. Studied music with Stockhousen at Darmstadt; art history and philosophy in Germany, 1956-58. Worked as video artist in electronic music studio for Radio Cologne, 1958-61; associated with the Fluxus group, New York, 1960s; artist-in-residence, WGBH-TV,1969; artist-in-residence, WNET-TV, New York, 1971; works closely with Japanese artist Shigeko Kubota. Address: Holly Solomon Gallery, 172 Mercer Street, New York, New York 10012, U.S.

TELEVISION

1970 Video Commune
1972 The Selling of New York
1974 Tribute to John Cage

PUBLICATIONS

"Expanded Education for the Paperless Society." Interfunktionen (Cologne), 1971; Flash Art (Milan), May/June 1972.

An Anthology of Nam June Paik (exhibition catalogue). West Berlin: n.p., 1984.

FURTHER READING

Atkins, Robert. "Two Years On." Horizon (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), April 1987.

Baker, Kenneth. "Currents." Art News (New York) February 1985.

Carr, C. "Beam Me Up, Nam June." The Village Voice (New York), 14 October 1986.

Denison, D.C. "Video Art's Guru." The New York Times (New York), 25 April 1982.

Gardner, Paul. "Tuning in to Nam June Paik: After Twenty Years of Tinkering with TV Sets, Paik is at His Peak." ARTnews (New York), May 1982.

Hanhardt, John G, editor. Nam June Paik. New York: Norton, 1982.

Hoberman, J. "Paik's Peak." Village Voice (New York), 25 May 1982.

Hughes, Robert. "Electronic Finger Painting: A Flickering Retrospective for Nam June Paik at the Whitney." Time (New York), 17 May 1982.

Nam June Paik: Mostly Video (exhibition catalogue). Tokyo: n.p., 1984.

Robinson, Walter. "Nam June Paik at Holly Solomon." Art in America (New York), June 1987.

Serwer, Jacquelyn D. "Nam June Paik: Technology." American Art (New York), Spring 1994.

Silver, Kenneth E. "Nam June Paik: Video's Body." Art in America (New York), November 1993.

Sloane, Patricia. "Patricia Sloane Discusses the Work of Nam June Paik." Art and Artists (London), March 1972.

Smith, Roberta. "Out of the Wasteland: An Avant-Gardist's Obsession with Television." Newsweek (New York), 13 October 1986.

Solomon, Holly. "Nam June Paik." ARTnews (New York), December 1986.

Spotnitz, Frank. "The Future Belongs to Video." American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1989.

Stoos, Toni, and Thomas Kellein, editors. Nam June Paik: Video Time, Video Space. New York: Abrams, 1993.

Tomkins, Calvin. "Profiles: Video Visionary." The New Yorker (New York), 5 May 1975.

 

See also Experimental Video