Traversing the Worlds of Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2001. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Nam June Paik endeavors to humanize technology and electronic media, a pursuit evident throughout his prolific, complex, and visionary career. He champions technology’s powerful potential to foster interactivity within our increasingly global society. Paik’s writings of nearly 40 years ago demonstrate his prescient awareness of the significance of TV, satellites, and rapid interactive communication well before advances in computer technology and the creation of the Internet. Paik recognized that TV’s pervasiveness renders it almost invisible; he sought to create alternatives to TV’s capacity to lull, to entertain, and to make passive consumers of its audience. He set out as an artist to demystify the medium, and in doing so, he transformed the video image into a tool capable of redefining the parameters of sculpture and installation art.

Global Encoder, 1994. 6 KEC 9-inch TVs, 1 Samsung 13-inch TV, steel frame, chassis, neon, satellite dish, 2 laser disk players, and 2 original Paik laser disks, 122 x 84 x 55 in.

Paik’s defining contribution is undeniable, now that the art of the moving image—video and media art—is endemic, informing our understanding of the visual arts in this new century. While some new media artists seem primarily concerned with the optical components within a pictorial space, Paik embraces the materiality as well as the more ephemeral nature of technology. Maintaining careful control over the images he selects, Paik meticulously edits an amalgam of pulsating visual images, then contains those images within a fabricated or reappropriated shell, as though he were creating a physical body to house the complexity of the soul.

Born in 1932 in Korea, Paik’s luminous career began with his aspiration to be a musician and composer. A student of electronic music, he received a degree in aesthetics from the University of Tokyo (1953–56) and subsequently moved to Germany to study music at the International Summer Course in New Music in Darmstadt. While in Darmstadt he met a number of artists who were to profoundly affect the direction of his artistic concerns, in particular composer John Cage and artist George Maciunas. Cage was known for improvisations in his music, incorporating randomness and chance operations, and Maciunas was one of the founders of Fluxus—a movement directed against preestablished ideas about art and the function of high art as a commodity. As a result of these influences, both improvisation and risk became elements that Paik incorporated into his performance art and later into his experimentations with altered TVs and videotape.

Paik’s participation in performance activities precipitated his move to New York in the mid-1960s. His training in music and performance informed his particular approach to the TV as a medium with artistic applications. He was used to working with time-based art—both music and performance—so that he was aware of incorporating elements of improvisation and risk. As an avant-garde performer he recognized the need to activate the audience’s emotional participation. Throughout his career he is said to have repeated with some irony: “I am a poor man from a poor country, therefore I have to be entertaining all the time.”1 Yet in this statement, Paik provides insight into his strategy of using self parody to engage the audience and to traverse cultural boundaries.

TV Buddha Re-Incarnated, 1994. Vintage Buddha head, chassis, computer monitor, keyboard, telephone, and Samsung 13-inch TV, approximately 43.5 x 41.5 x 16 in.

When Paik relocated to New York in 1964, he continued to explore TV as a performance object. Before moving to the U.S. he began altering televisions by mechanically adjusting the circuitry, tubes, and condensers to redirect the image into abstract, moving electronic patterns. Seemingly. he was trying to discover the ideological, technical, and even spiritual core of the apparatus.2

New and expanded opportunities opened for Paik as he began experimenting with the first portable half-inch videotape recorder and player produced by Sony in 1965. Video, unlike film, provides immediacy and control over the image, since it records and shows on the monitor what the camera sees in real time. And, with the accessibility of video, for the first time a recorded electronic image could be produced outside a recording studio. The portability of the camera made any site fair game for recording, opening vast possibilities in terms of creating content and experimenting with moving images.

Paik’s understanding of the functioning of television and his ability to alter its properties enabled him to produce compelling, non-narrative segments of video. His extensive knowledge of other time-based art forms put him in a unique position to develop the artistic use of video. Commenting on how his particular training assisted his understanding of the opportunities presented by video, Paik observed, “I think I understand time better than the video artist who came from painting-sculpture. Music is the manipulation of time. All music forms have different structures and buildup. As painters understand abstract space, I understand abstract time.”3

More Log-In: Less Logging, 1993. 4 antique TV cabinets, 1 welded aluminum grid, colored wire, neon, 3 KEC 9-inch TVs, 13 Sony 13-inch TVs, 2 Sony laser disk players, and 2 original Paik laser disks, 128 x 83 x 21 in.

In the late 1960s, Paik combined performance’s expressive capacity with the technological possibilities of altering TVs and creating videos. Charlotte Moorman, a cellist, performance artist, and producer of the New York Avant-Garde Festivals, became one of Paik’s most significant collaborators as they continued to produce work throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Paik designed sculptures from variously sized TV monitors that Moorman would wear and interact with during the performances. Among the video works resulting from their collaboration were TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), TV Glasses (1971), and TV Cello (1971).

In “playing” the TV Cello, an assemblage of monitors arranged to resemble the shape of the musical instrument, Moorman caused the images on the monitors to change as she drew the bow across the strings. This success in interactivity furthered Paik’s quest to humanize the TV—in effect transforming Moorman’s body into a television body.4 Undeniably, this work is also about looking; Paik uses the television to attract the gaze, thereby redefining the television as an object of contemplation rather than a means of temporary escape.

One of the most recognizable of Paik’s sculptures is Video Buddha, (1976–78). A sculpted Buddha figure gazes at his image in the TV monitor that is recorded by closed circuit video. The historical/religious significance of the Buddha figure makes it an apt metaphor for contemplation, yet there seems to be conflict between the desires to look away from and into the self. Decades later, Paik reinterpreted this theme by placing the Buddha sculpture in front of a computer monitor in Buddha Re-Incarnated (1994). The connection is not made through a contemplative gaze, but rather through a telephone receiver linking the Buddha figure, which has cyborg components, to the computer monitor. Perhaps this is a commentary on the technological advances that allow for immediate real-time communication of voice and image. Paik may also be commenting on the nature of the relationship and the connection between the mind and objective reality.

My Faust: Technology, 1989–91. Wooden structure covered with aluminum sheet, metal tubes, copper pipe, gears, electrical wires and gauges, circuit boards, and machine parts.

Characteristic of Paik’s work, the Buddha trope represents multiple, even conflicting perspectives. In the context of present society, with the prevalence of New Age religion and the over-commercialization of many religious signifiers, this sculpture is now more ambiguous than when it was first presented.

Paik has demonstrated a remarkable ability to imagine the television in virtually every configuration and permutation throughout his career. In TV Garden (1974), monitors are placed face up amid leafy vegetation, broadcasting Paik’s Global Groove, a video incorporating synthesized imagery from commercial television programming and the work of filmmakers. The monitors function as exotic blossoms interspersed with foliage. Video Fish (1975) aligns 20 monitors placed at eye level. Each monitor displays an edited video of swimming fish, flying planes, and Merce Cunningham dancing. To view the monitors, one must look through an actual aquarium, stocked with living fish, which creates the odd perception of the fish tank becoming a television monitor and vice versa. By suspending monitors from the ceiling, arranging them on the floor, and configuring them into towering structures, Paik succeeds in establishing them as a sculptural medium in their own right.

Borrowing from a staple of commercial trade shows, Paik also reinterpreted the massive video wall to create moving murals. Using discrete monitors that deploy multiple channels, he was able to vary the images from individual tapes on each screen or to deploy a single, continuous image spread across all screens. Varying the scale of these video walls, he also created a series of flags using an easily recognizable format, programming colors, shapes, and images to pulsate across the surface of the monitors, creating an engaging visual spectacle. The iconic power of their design lends a directness to these wall reliefs. When considered in the context of a sculptural object, the permutations of the non-linear video incorporate both time and temporality, lending another layer of complexity to the material object.

Hamlet Robot, 1996. 11 vintage TV cabinets, 2 vintage radio cabinets, 5 Samsung 13-inch TVs, 6 KEC 9-inch TVs, 2 Sony 5-inch TVs, with attached crown, scepter, sword, transformer, 2 Pioneer laser disk players, and 2 original Paik laser disks, 144 x 88 x 32 in.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Paik created a series of clearly figurative sculptures. Antique radios and TVs are assembled into human-like forms, suggestive of both the gender and personality of the resulting sculpture. The carved wooden cabinets lend a sense of nostalgia, even corporeality to these robots. Hamlet Robot (1996), for example, is composed of 13 televisions whose screens display flashing film imagery of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, interspersed with scenes of the Danish landscape. The addition of props such as a crown, scepter, and skull furthers the reference to the Prince of Denmark.

A number of these portrait sculptures were commissioned by Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati for the 1994 touring exhibition, “The Electronic Super Highway.” These sculptures reveal some of the possibilities for enhanced communication and even conservation through technology. More Log-In: Less Logging (1995), also constructed of antique TV cabinets, monitors, and a plethora of cables, makes an environmental statement: through electronic communication we have the potential to conserve natural resources, specifically forests, because less paper will be needed to facilitate communication. My Faust: Technology (1989–91), which consists of the architectural remnants of a church interior, hints at the transformative power of technology, as well as its shadow component, the vying for exploitative control of information and power.

Global Encoder (1994), a larger-than-life figure fashioned from the casings of computer technology, holds a parasol made from a satellite dish. This work references Paik’s ideas articulated in the early 1980s about satellite technology shortening the communication gap among individuals. Paik has likened the two-way satellite to the mystical power of a “ninja (a samurai who mastered many fantastic arts, including that of making himself invisible, chiefly to spy on the enemy).”5 Shortening distances and defying gravity, Paik observed, are easily achieved by the satellite. He mused on the power of satellite technology to facilitate communication in our increasingly globalized world:

Satellite art…must consider how to achieve a two-way connection between opposite sides of the earth; how to give conversational structure to the art; how to master differences in time; how to play with improvisations, in-determinism, echoes, feedback and empty spaces in the Cagean sense; and how to instantaneously manage the differences in culture, preconceptions, and common sense that exist between various nations…Thanks to the satellite, the mysteries of encounters with others (chance meetings) will accumulate in geometric progression and should become the main nonmaterial product of post-industrialized society.6

This statement clearly illustrates Paik’s belief in the transformative power of art. Paik envisions technology (TV, computers, satellites) as a tool to empower artists, to further free expression, and to transform the art world. John Hanhardt, curator of Paik’s 2000 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum asserts, “Paik is a utopian artist, looking to achieve the impossible to realize a better world for art is undeniable.”7 Through his vision, humor, and inventiveness, Paik offers new possibilities for envisioning ourselves and seeing a world that we may traverse with greater ease and grace.

Carla Hanzal is Curator, Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, Virginia Beach.

1 John Hanhardt, The Worlds of Nam June Paik (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000), p. 108.
2 David A. Ross, “Nam June Paik’s Videotapes” in Nam June Paik, edited by John Hanhardt, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Norton & Company, 1982), p. 101.
Gregory Battcock, New Artists Video (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), p. 127.
4 Hanhardt, op. cit., p. 68.
5 Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 435.
6 Ibid.
7 Hanhardt, op. cit., p. 108.