Nam June Paik has been rightly called the George Washington of the video art movement. The South Korean-born artist, who died in 2006 at age 73, led a revolution in embracing television and electronics during the early 1960s to create provocative, quirky and influential works.
From “TV Cello,” a stack of monitors played by a musician, to spectacular arrays of moving pictures and patterns, Paik’s creations reveal the artistic possibilities of a medium once valued for its technological advantages alone.
The appeal of his inventive, sometimes goofy art is on full display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” celebrates the range of the artist’s explorations in a playful exhibition drawn from his archive. In 2009, the museum acquired Paik’s estate to become the pre-eminent center for studying his work.
Photographs of the artist’s New York studios introduce the show to reveal his wide-ranging interests, from collecting bird cages and Elvis busts to tinkering with TV equipment. Some of these artifacts are on display along with Paik’s prophetic writings, including a 1968 paper suggesting the now common practice of learning through videotapes.
They make for interesting sidelines, but the real attractions in this show are emotive pieces fashioned from multiple TVs. The centerpiece, “TV Garden,” is a large installation of various sized monitors dispersed through a grove of indoor plants like colorful flowers.
The sets are tuned to the fast-paced “Global Groove,” a mix of footage from the artist’s films and commercial TV. Personalities as diverse as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and President Richard M. Nixon show up, along with dancers gyrating to the 1960s hit song “Devil with a Blue Dress On.”
As in most of Paik’s work, the intent is to arouse, amuse and delight through visual, rather than narrative, impact. The dazzling “Megatron/Matrix,” shown on a wall of 215 monitors, captivates attention with animated characters moving across the boundaries of screens bearing changing scenes. The assault of imagery could be a metaphor for the information saturation of the electronic age.
In contrast to many video artists working today, Paik wasn’t interested in slick, cinematic images playing in the dark. This self-taught wizard willingly revealed the process behind his work and combined moving images with people and figurative sculptures to humanize the technology.
One of his most controversial works, “TV Bra,” called for strapping two tiny televisions onto the breasts of collaborator Charlotte Moorman, who produced images on the sets by playing her cello. Paik met Moorman through an international group of avant-garde artists called Fluxus, while he was studying music in Germany. Others involved with this neo-Dada confederacy included Yoko Ono and John Cage, whose ideas about experimentation and randomness inspired Paik.
Paik’s earliest pieces reflect this influence in mixing music, performance art and video. The dilapidated “Prepared Piano” is shown next to a clip of the artist pounding nails into the upright and banging his head on the keys.
“Random Access” invites the viewer to rub a machine across audiotape pasted to the wall and listen to recordings. “Magnet TV,” made after Paik moved to New York in 1964, generates abstract patterns on the screen by shifting the magnet on the top of the set. (Unfortunately, the participatory nature of the two pieces cannot be realized in the exhibit since the decades-old equipment is now too fragile.)
By the late 1960s and ‘70s, the artist was using video to explore time and space. “TV Chair” positions a camera above a television in the seat so the sitter is captured on the screen, but cannot see the image. “TV Buddha,” suggesting the sacredness of TV in our culture, shows a Buddha statue contemplating its face on a small monitor while being recorded by a camera.
In another section of the exhibit, TV sets are arranged into friendly, human shapes. “Family of Robot: Baby,” a figurative assemblage of 13 monitors, is part of a series that started with a remote-controlled robot made by the artist in 1964 that could walk and talk. “Merce/Digital” celebrates the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham in a dynamic composition of vintage TVs placed on the diagonal.
Now that video has become ubiquitous, its delivery channeled through a myriad of sleek devices, the groundbreaking work in this exhibit can seem crude, almost quaint. But it still remains relevant in celebrating and subverting accepted ideas about television and video, and setting a path for other artists to follow.
In fact, Paik was prescient in grasping the possibilities of television and global communication. He coined the term “electronic superhighway” in the 1970s when the Internet was just a pipe dream. He foresaw the proliferation of cable channels in musing that “TV Guide” would become “as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory.” Even when video was in its infancy, he understood the power of the medium in all its beauty and banality.