Art

Nam June Paik has the last laugh

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Rapid, multilayered, fluid — the high-tech images created by Nam June Paik earned him the epithet the Father of Video Art. He may be most often associated with banks of television screens and intense, distorted video images, but as a new retrospective of his work at the Watarium (The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art) in Tokyo highlights, there was more to Paik’s art than a fascination with technology.

“The 10th Anniversary Retrospective of Nam June Paik — 2020: Who is the One Grinning ?+?=??” showcases the South Korean-born artist’s videos, sketches, paintings, posters and plans of unrealized projects a decade after his death at the age of 73. With all works drawn from the museum’s collection, the Watarium’s connection with the artist goes back as far as 1978, when Paik held an exhibition at the predecessor to the museum, Galerie Watari.

Because of the sheer number of works he produced during his long career, the current exhibition is being held in two stages, with the first running until Oct. 10. This covers his start as a classical music student in the 1950s and his encounter with electronic music, continuing through the ’80s when, among other interests, he was experimenting with satellite TV broadcasting.

The second part of the exhibition, which runs from Oct. 15 to Jan. 29, 2017, will concentrate on Paik’s work from the 1990s through his death in 2006 — including his Zen-inspired creations and collaborations with German avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys, and even beyond, to inspire contemplation of what his works have to say to us in 2020.

Born in 1932, Paik’s music career took a more experimental course after he met the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen while studying music in Germany during the late ’50s. Subsequent encounters with John Cage and others led Paik to become a member of the New York-based avant-garde Fluxus group in the early ’60s. Soon after this, he began to learn from engineers how to manipulate television images using magnets, which he incorporated into performances. Paik continued to explore the visual possibilities of manipulating video and television images, as can be seen in the ahead-of-its-time “Global Groove” (1973), a film collaboration with television engineer John Godfrey.

Paik was drawn to the potential of mass media technology to create what he envisioned, as early as the ’70s, could be an “electronic superhighway” — a network of reciprocal data flow — that in retrospect looks like a prediction of the internet.

One of Paik’s attempts to create such an information hub was his staging, less than a decade after commercial TV satellites went into operation, of the live satellite TV show “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” on Jan. 1, 1984. The television screen played a central role as an oppressive tool of surveillance in the dystopia outlined in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Paik’s reply to this was to use technology to allow pop musicians and avant-garde artists of different nationalities to share their ideas with people watching simultaneously around the globe.

The program, showing at the exhibition, linked a New York public TV station by satellite with a studio at the Pompidou Center in Paris, and included live material from Germany and South Korea. Paik attempted to demonstrate that, contrary to Orwell’s worst fears, people could use technology to express themselves and connect with others.

This concern with the human condition is an aspect of Paik’s work that all too often gets overshadowed by his image as a pioneer of high-tech art. Many of his projects celebrate the energy of music and dance. The boundaries between performance and technology are often blurred, both in his solo work and in his collaborations with his contemporaries such as the cellist Charlotte Moorman or the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Water, candlelight, and various organisms, such as fish and plants, were an integral part of Paik’s work as much as cathode-ray tubes, magnets and satellites. “TV Fish” (1975), on display in the exhibition, sees Paik transform a fish tank into a subaquatic television. Here, tiny fish swim around as their own images are projected onto the screen at the back of the tank, complemented by images of Cunningham’s movements as he dances.

The Watarium exhibition shows us that, in contrast to the seriousness of much avant-garde art, Paik used technology to remind us all of the value of communication, humor and the joy of life itself.

“The 10th Anniversary Retrospective of Nam June Paik — 2020: Who is the One Grinning ?+?=??” at the The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, runs until Oct. 10, and then Oct. 15-Jan. 29, 2017; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mondays. www.watarium.co.jp/exhibition/index.html