Known as the “Father of Video Art” thanks to his video “compost” edits and the pioneering use of television sets in his works, the career of South Korean artist and leading Fluxus figure Nam June Paik (Paik Nam-june, 1932-2006) spanned an eventful five decades across Japan, Germany and the US.
Read on to learn more about Paik and to discover some of his most famous television sculpture works.
NAM JUNE PAIK BIOGRAPHY
Paik was born in Seoul in 1932 to wealthy parents operating in the textile industry. When the Korean War broke out, his family took him and fled to Hong Kong.
Like various sound artists such as the American composer Alvin Lucier, Paik had a rather formal training in music; he moved to Japan and studied classical music at the University of Tokyo with an undergraduate degree in aesthetics, completing his thesis on the Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg.
In 1956, Paik moved to Germany to study with the Greek pianist Thrasybulos Georgiades in Munich and later, the German composer Wolfgang Fortner at the International Music College in Freiburg.
During his stay, he would attend summer courses in Darmstadt, a city near Frankfurt where the seminal programme Kranichsteiner Musikinstitut takes place.
It was at Darmstadt that he met the composer John Cage in 1958, with whom he would develop a formative relationship and later dedicate the work A Tribute To John Cage.
“My life began one evening in August 1958 in Darmstadt,” the artist had allegedly once said.
He added that “1957 was 1 BC (Before Cage) and “1947 was the year 10 BC”.
John Cage Robot II, 1995, vintage wood television cabinets, colour television Receivers, DVD players, multi-channel video, piano keys, piano hammers, piano wire, acrylic paint, basket, books, wood mushrooms, and chessmen. 274.3 × 203.2 × 78.7 cm. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2011.17. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.
In Cologne, he worked at the WDR Studio for Electronic Music. He then met the founder of the Fluxus movement George Maciunas and Joseph Beuys.
A major milestone in the history of sound art, the avant-garde Fluxus largely centred around performance and participatory art forms or “Events”. Paik was one of the leading figures of the anarchist, interdisciplinary movement.
Paik held his first solo exhibition, “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television”, in 1963 at the Wuppertal-based Galerie Parnass.
The show featured thirteen second-hand television sets, pianos, and a destructive intervention by Joseph Beuys on opening night. This was the first time that Paik would employ the use of the television in his works.
A year later, in 1964, he moved to New York and began collaborating with the cellist Charlotte Moorman. Paik would continue to keep a foot in Europe throughout his time in the Big Apple, and his tours with Moorman took him around the world.
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.
During a residency sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Boston station WGBH-TV, he developed a synthesiser along with the Japanese engineer Shuya Abe: the Paik-Abe Video Synthesiser.
The novel creation would allow the artist to collage video clips, or “video compost”, into new productions such as his seminal Global Groove (1974).
Nam June Paik and John Godfrey. Global Groove, 1973. Video, colour, sound. 28 min, 30 sec. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.
In 1993, the artist helped bring New York’s Whitney Biennial to Seoul’s Korean National Contemporary Art Museum. It was the first time that the show had toured outside its home city.
He has taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles and the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf and has had major solo exhibitions around the world.
“Yes, I want to be popular. I am a communication artist, so I have to communicate with my audience,” he said in a 1999 interview with the critic Tilman Baumgaertel.
The video art pioneer passed away at the age of 74 in 2006 due to complications of a stroke.
In 2008, the Nam June Paik Art Center – a museum specialising in media art – opened near Seoul to carry his legacy forward.
On the occasion of what would have been his 90th birthday, the centre released “Paik's Video Study”, a streaming platform with about 700 of the late artist’s videos and research material.
The recent (2021/2022) touring retrospective “Nam June Paik: The Future is Now” travelled across Singapore’s National Gallery, Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, London's Tate Modern, and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.
FAMOUS TELEVISION WORKS BY NAM JUNE PAIK
Paik once said that video was a tabula rasa, or a clean slate. Using his “video compost” method, he assembled disparate clips into new multilayered forms.
Nam June Paik, Egg Grows, 1984-1989, eight video monitors, video camera, and egg. 91.44 x 274.32 x 548.64 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Elaine McKeon, Byron R. Meyer, Madeleine Haas Russell, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Swanson; © Estate of Nam June Paik; photo: Katherine Du Tiel.
With a Fluxist spirit, he frequently worked with found objects and the readymade in his work – so it seems fitting that the television set was his signature medium. It developed the dizzying information overload effect of his work and gave him his “Father of Video Art” nickname.
‘ELECTRONIC SUPERHIGHWAY: CONTINENTAL US, ALASKA, HAWAII’ (1995)
Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation, custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound. Photo: cea +
In this large-scale work that the artist gifted to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, the US is divided into its states with 575 feet (175 metres) of multi-coloured neon tubing.
Each state has its own set of televisions – a total of 336 – projecting media that the artist associated with the area.
For California, he chose to represent the state with videos of fitness classes and the digits 1s and 0s to reflect the tech scene. For Kansas, he chose clips from Wizard Of Oz (where the film is set).
Paik coined the term “Electronic Superhighway” for the works in this series.
‘TV GARDEN’ (1974)
TV Garden, 1974, colour video, with sound, 29 min., with a minimum of 30 television sets, and plants. Installation view at the National Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.
The single-channel video Global Groove by the artist features clips of Paik’s friends, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, which he developed using his own Paik-Abe Video Synthesiser.
The video is projected across thirty television sets placed among (real) greenery, teasing a symbiosis of media with the natural world.
“Many people had thought that television is against ecology, but in this case, television is part of ecology,” he said in an interview.
Among its various appearances, the work was presented at Documenta 6 (1977) in Kassel, Germany.
Dadaikseon (1988), 1003 television monitors. Photo: G A R N E T.
A massive tower featuring 1003 television sets, Dadaikseon (The More, The Better) is back on view at the base of the spiral ramp at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Gwacheon, Korea, after a three-year restoration plan.
The work was first installed to coincide with the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics, and the quantity of televisions reference Korea's Gaecheonjeol, or National Foundation Day (October 3).
At approximately 60 feet high (18.5 metres), it is the largest work by Paik.
‘TV BUDDHA’ (1974)
TV Buddha, 1974. Closed-circuit video installation with wooden sculpture, monitor and video camera, video, single channel, 4:3 format, live feed. Collection of Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Installation view at the National Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.
In TV Buddha, an 18th-century wooden Buddha sculpture watches an image of itself on a television that it’s facing.
There are various editions of the work, such as TV Buddha (1989), Buddha Watching TV (1997), and Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand (2005).
The work was acquired by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1978 following a solo exhibition of the artist.
Continue exploring sound art:
Cover Credit: TV Garden, 1974, colour video, with sound, 29 min., with a minimum of 30 television sets, and plants. Installation view at the National Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat