A loving tribute at the Watari-um for a close friend


“Bye-Bye, Nam June Paik,” the current exhibition at the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art, is a loving tribute to an artist who has always been close to that Aoyama art space’s heart.

Regarded as the father of video art, Nam June Paik, who was born in Seoul in 1932, died in January. Of all the remarkable things he did in five decades of creative experimentation, I think one anecdote in particular illustrates his character. It was 1965, and Paik had flown from Tokyo to New York in proud possession of the first-ever commercially available video camera, the Sony Portapak. Paik’s taxi became locked in traffic due to a visit by Pope Paul VI. An excited Paik readied the video camera, and from the window of the cab, shot his first-ever tape as the papal motorcade passed. When Paik showed the video to friends that evening at the Cafe a Go Go, the impromptu event could be called the first-ever video art exhibition — the genesis, indeed, of a new artistic medium.

Playful, personable and immensely talented, Paik was also a pioneer in the treatment of video imagery — co-developing with video engineer Shuya Abe a method of manipulating and superimposing colors and forms on video.

But he is perhaps best known for his overwhelming installations constructed from TV sets, which, in those days, were large, ornate wooden cabinets. Paik loved to mess around, building arches, pyramids, towers — for him, form always mattered as much as content.

The Watari-Um show documents Paik’s life in art, and does so with an intimacy possible only from a museum that was something of a second home.

Curator Koichi Watari was a teenager when he was first introduced to Paik by his mother, Shizuko, a longtime arts patron who had chanced upon the curious Korean at an art show in Germany. Paik made frequent trips to Japan throughout most of his life, and the Watari-Um possesses a collection of his art unrivaled by any private museum in the world.

“Actually, he hated watching television, he saw it as a boring form of one-way communication,” says Watari, who regarded Paik as an uncle. “He was always reading, teaching us about art and philosophy, or playing the piano — classical music like Chopin. Actually, we had a piano in the house, but he was the only one who could play it, so he knew we wouldn’t mind if he destroyed it, which he did to make the artwork we have on the second floor of this exhibition!”

The show includes such signature Paik pieces as “Beuys” (1988), a mixed-media tribute to Paik’s longtime collaborator Joseph Beuys. There are many other references to Paik’s artistic associations, principally with or around the 1960s New York-based art collective Fluxus. But one does not have to be versed in mid-to-late 20th-century contemporary art to appreciate this exhibition. Paik was hardly bourgeois or elitist, on the contrary his ongoing work with music — utilizing violin, cello and piano — was characterized primarily by a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. In a performance documented here, Charlotte Moorman “plays” a cello shaped assembly of televisions while wearing a bra constructed of two tiny television sets.

Paik was also interested in the groundbreaking work of his contemporary Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. But rather than engage in an academic discourse on Weiner’s work, Paik built ridiculous robots, then videotaped them as they self-destructed in vain attempts to navigate the streets of New York City. One such robot is on display.

The exhibition features a number of large installations — there are the stacked old TV cabinets of course, but also walls of sleek plasma monitors. We also find TVs without electronics — one 1960s molded plastic portable television has been completely gutted, the cathode ray tube replaced by a solitary candle. But what unites everything is Paik’s inimitable character — one of genius tempered by an impish, childlike joy found in the act of creation.

These days, when we make movies on our mobile phones or digital cameras, we take the instantaneous production of images for granted. “Bye-Bye Nam June Paik” traces the life’s work of a man who never took anything for granted, who was always keen to explore, celebrate and reinvent the artistic process.

The exhibition, ultimately, is much more than a retrospective. It is more accurately the chronicle of a family museum and its most intimate relationship with a special and original man. In commemoration of Nam June Paik’s passing, this is an exhibition filled not with sorrow, but with love.