A pioneer of video art and a foreseer of communication in the age of the internet, visionary artist Nam June Paik is celebrated in Tate Modern’s latest exhibition.
When crossing the threshold into Tate Modern’s current retrospective of Nam June Paik (1932-2006), one is instantly immersed in his fascinating and unique cosmos. In the first room, a video plays on loop and shows the Korean-American artist using his own body to execute enigmatic, performative actions (Hands and Face, 1961). The sight of him ritualistically touching his face with his hands is both soothing and unsettling to watch. In the monochrome film, it appears as if Paik is performing some kind of reality check to determine whether he is awake or dreaming. At the same time, his pensive, repetitive movements are a form of meditation aimed at merging his consciousness with his body; an attempt to ensure his existence in the world.
This contemplative mood is further established by the exhibition’s adjacent installation, where an element of futurism is introduced. TV Buddha (1974) displays a wooden Buddha sculpture staring at its own reflection through a closed-circuit television system. Engrossed in its greyscale image, the Buddha is trapped in an eternal meditative state. Through his uncanny juxtaposition of technology and spiritualism, Paik’s ideology is highlighted and his vision crystallized. In the captivating piece, the contrasts between East and West, history and the future, are narrated and eventually reconciled. Simultaneously, as the viewer moves to observe the installation, an uncomfortable feeling begins to surface. The Buddha stares intently at itself, while the observer gazes at the sculpture. The live feed of the camera captures both, so viewers become increasingly aware and unsettled by the CCTV that is recording their every movement. However, an alternative, more optimistic interpretation of the installation can be perceived when considering the state that the Buddha is in. The sculpture remains tranquil, deep in meditation and indifferent to the constant surveillance it is under. Through this latter, unorthodox interpretation, the artist proposes a simple, yet unfamiliar concept – one where spirituality and technology smoothly coexist inside a single human entity.
Unity is a persistent theme in Paik’s art. He seamlessly integrates seemingly conflicting elements, thus advocating for transnational, transcultural and interdisciplinary connectedness. This tendency is most clearly exhibited in TV Garden (1974-7), where an entire room is filled with live tropical plants and amongst their dense, glossy leaves, vintage television sets bloom. The experience is meant to activate and engage all senses, as viewers are encouraged to explore the garden, soak up the sweet, floral scents and attend to the performances depicted on the screens. Dazzling lights flicker from the television sets, while numerous videos are shown in succession (Japanese commercials, instruction videos, theatrical dances that have been manipulated to appear abstract and many others). At the same time, music (such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) blares and echoes across the room. In his attempt to ‘destroy national television’ and challenge its passive nature, Paik stimulates and overwhelms viewers, while comforting their disquieted spirits. The exhibition has been purposefully structured in a way that makes the observer strikingly aware of the plants’ sprightly and delicate nature. The pots and soil of the foliage are visible, reminding the audience of the care and cultivation a garden – or any being for that matter – requires in order to survive and remain alive. Finally, the notion that art is not stiff and absolute, but an ever-changing, imperfect entity is emphasized.
Paik’s desire to create all-encompassing, interdisciplinary art was intensified when he met and befriended the experimental composer, John Cage. One of Cage’s most influential works was 4’33’’, where musicians were instructed to refrain from playing their instruments for the entirety of the piece, in order for the audience to appreciate the environment’s natural sounds. Inspired by this composition and Cage’s Buddhist practices, Paik began to create works that featured environmental sounds, the doctrine of Zen and meditation (Zen for Wind, 1963). The composer was also a great source of influence for Paik’s immersive experience titled ‘Exposition of Music-Electronic Television’ (1963). In Exposition an entire villa was used and each room featured multiple installations, all of which centered around music and audience participation. Instruments (mainly pianos) had been taken apart, refashioned and filled with barbed wire, doll heads, sirens, bras, photos and other objects. Certain keys were modelled to trigger film projections or to make the lights in each room switch on and off. Visitors were invited to experiment with the percussive instruments and create unique compositions and event sequences. Each of the rooms featured bizarre and fascinating projects, the collection of which evoked childlike feelings of spontaneity and an atmosphere of controlled chaos.
This sentiment of controlled chaos was best highlighted when Paik’s friend and fellow artist, Joseph Beuys, impulsively destroyed one of the exhibition’s featured pianos. Instead of replacing the instrument, Paik left it on display and was in fact quoted saying that the piano was fortunate enough to have been wrecked by Beuys. The two ended up frequent collaborating together and performed peculiar projects. A notable example is Coyote III (1984), where Paik was filmed playing a mix of piano compositions, while Beuys made curious growling noises over a microphone. Both artists were also members of Fluxus, which was an international community of avant-garde performers, whose shared ideology was the prioritization of the artistic process over the final product. Paik was deeply influenced by his time spent as a Fluxus member, and even when he was temporarily expelled for participating in projects condemned by the collective, he continued creating Fluxus-inspired works. Another remarkable and lasting connection of Paik’s from around this period was Charlotte Moorman, a radical cellist. The two collaborated for almost thirty years, as they shared a love for both music and the avant-garde. Through their daring multi-sensory performances, they introduced sexuality into classical music (Opera Sextronique, 1967, TV Cello, 1971 etc.).
Paik considered art to be an ever-changing, living entity that could always be remade and would never be complete. He viewed technology the same way. Unlike other artists, he neither condemned nor glorified it. Instead, he perceived it as a means to an end. Throughout his career, Paik displayed incredible foresight into the future of robotics and even built multiple visionary projects using TV sets and electronic equipment. In 1964, he devised Robot K-456 (named after Mozart’s piano concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456). The robot was life-sized and was used for impromptu street performances. During one of its shows, the robot was purposefully hit by a car and tossed into the crosswalk. This incident was once again meant to emphasize the juxtaposition between nature and technology, and assert the animate state of both.
Another major aspect of Paik’s pioneering work concerns his holistic view of mass media, as he underscored both its manipulative power and potential. In fact, Paik displayed impressive insight on the importance and impact that technology and mass media would have on visual culture. Many of his projects relied on satellite transmissions and long-distance, real-time collaborations, while he had long predicted a global information and telecommunication network that would facilitate and promote artistic collaborations. One of the first exhibits of video art made specifically for broadcasting on TV was Paik’s Video Commune (Beatles Beginning to End), in which he made a collage of distorted TV imagery accompanied by Beatles’ songs. Passers-by were invited into his studio and encouraged to alter and mix the video images as they aired. In 1984, he aired a satellite transmission called Good Morning Mr. Orwell, which broadcasted live events across multiple cities and continents. And, in 1974, he coined the phrase ‘Electronic Superhighway’ to refer to a decentralized, world-wide system for information exchange.
Tate Modern’s mesmerizing exhibition immerses the audience into Paik’s futuristic and experimental work, while also shedding light on the fact that, throughout his fifty-year artistic journey, Paik never failed to showcase the importance and need for self-reflection. In fact, he often played with the concept of an artist’s overgrown ego (Egomachine, 1974, July 20, 1985). In the One Candle (Candle Projection) installation of 1989, a CCTV camera projects a lit-up candle on the wall. The reflected image is shown in red, green and blue colors that contrast and intertwine with one another. Upon viewing the candle’s flickering light, thoughts about the fickle and precarious nature of human existence are brought to mind. The observer is also reminded of the exhibition’s first room, where the notions of technology and Zen Buddhism were initially juxtaposed.
The collection’s final immersive experience is the Sistine Chapel (1993), an installation which takes up an entire room including the ceiling. 42 projectors play all at once, repeatedly switching between poorly cropped pictures and videos. Lights flash across the room and a cacophony of sound pours from the speakers. The experience is entirely overwhelming, yet by the end it leaves the audience with the impression that some type of cleansing ritual has been performed.
In Korean culture, shamans are believed to be mediators between the spirit and the human world; the intermediaries between past and present generations. Theatricality is always incorporated into their rituals, with the shamans themselves wearing colourful robes attached with flashy materials. They perform dances and chants, while holding objects that rattle. These displays of showmanship succeed in maintaining the audience’s engagement, but they are also said to allow for a finer connection to be established between realms. From an early age, Paik had grown familiar with shamanism and often incorporated aspects of shamanistic culture and rituals in his art (The Mongolian Tent, 1993, while he also included a performance of a shamanistic exorcism during the memorial of his late friend). After witnessing his work and exploring his legacy, one thing becomes clear: by forging transdisciplinary and transcultural bridges, and becoming a conduit between the once opposing worlds of technology and art, Nam June Paik is clearly the modern shaman of the multimedia world.
Nam June Paik will be on show until the 9 February 2020. For more information or to book tickets, click here. If you’re 16–25 why not join Tate Collective for free to gain £5 tickets for all exhibitions.