Sunday, 28 November 2010

Little White Lies Feature: Nam June Paik at Tate Liverpool

Here's an article I wrote ahead of a major retrospective of Nam June Paik coming up at Tate and FACT in Liverpool this winter, can't wait to see it. The article appears in the latest Little White Lies magazine.


If you were watching TV in 1963 you’d have witnessed Kennedy’s demise, got to know an English fop in a Tardis and seen your favourite band lip-sync for their lives on Ready Steady Go! The chunky box in the corner of the living room stood for comfort and familiarity – at least, in most places it did. In Wuppertal, Germany, something quite new was happening.

It was here that Nam June Paik installed his ‘Exposition of Music Electronic Television’, where TV sets absorbed audio feeds from cassette recorders, live broadcasts were warped with magnets, and TVs screened a horizontal line. The materiality of television was being scrambled in a German art gallery, and its repercussions would reverberate around the world.

Later, in New York, the Korean born Paik bought a consumer grade video camera and pioneered video art, recognising video’s expressive and conceptual capabilities and its position at the epicentre of popular culture. He intercepted TV as it became a global phenomenon and subverted society’s early perceptions, scrambling then throwing them back, still familiar but definitely a bit strange.

“Nam June humanised technology,” says his nephew Ken Hakuta. “He was a cultural terrorist who broke all conventions with his very sophisticated wit and humour, intelligence, sarcasm, global and cross cultural thinking. His artworks reflect all of this.” Citing Paik’s ‘TV Buddha’, a closed circuit TV piece in which a Buddha watches his own videoed image on a monitor, Hakuta says:

“He made society talk to the TV. [It was] a two-way conversation, instead of what had been a one-way conversation.” In New York, the father of video art had also befriended the godfather of the avant-garde, Jonas Mekas, who recalls Paik as “a far out, wacky kind of guy, very funny most of the time, never too serious and very, very irrational. He practically single-handedly brought video and TV art into existence just with a piece of magnet – it was that simple. Actually it wasn’t. But he was a genius, so he made it look simple.”

Fellow artist Rebecca Allen, now a professor at UCLA, recalls their struggle: “The art world was snubbing us because artists couldn’t work with computers, that wasn’t art. Video was barely thought of as any kind of an art form.” Although society was embracing technology, it wasn’t without suspicion, especially regarding creativity. As Allen says: “It’s like claiming a piano’s going to kill music because it’ll start creating all the musical pieces.”

With multi-screen works including ‘Positive Egg’, in which the image of a white egg was enlarged and abstracted over a series of TV screens, or his stack of over 1,000 TV monitors for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Paik approached video art with a sense of humour, humanism and entertainment value. He built his famous robots from TVs in his nephew’s bedroom. “It was a funky robot, even as a 10-year-old, I knew that,” recalls Hakuta. “This was not a Sony robot, this was a Paik robot – one that was designed not to function well nor look good. This was genius. This was fun.”

Paik later extracted this robot from the Whitney Museum and walked it down the sidewalk, only to have it felled by a yellow taxi. He called the event ‘a catastrophe of technology in the twenty-first century’. Playfully, he reminded us that we should humanise technology, not be dehumanised by it. Paik looked into the future and understood not just the power of technology but its creative potential, coining the phrase ‘information superhighway’ back in 1974. As Mekas concludes: “His mind was always a few miles ahead of himself and of all the others around him.” Paik aimed to be the ‘TV version of Vivaldi’ and as such, our technology is his orchestra.

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