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Sex, Zen and Videotapes:
Nam June Paik’s Dream of a Humane Technology



Nam June Paik set standards for the production and perception of video art with his television projects, installations, performances, collaborations, and the development of new artistic tools. Even if his fame is primarily based on his video creations, Paik’s work would have been unthinkable without his intense involvement in 20th-century European music. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Paik’s progress through avant-garde music and Fluxus performance art to his early video works, which called for a more humane and creative approach to technology.

Magnet TV, video installation, 1965


Empty Roads
”March 1963. While I was devoting myself to research on video, I lost my interest in action music to a certain extent. After twelve performances of Karl Heinz Stockhausen’s Originale I started a new life from November 1961. By starting a new life I mean that I stocked my whole library except those on TV technique into storage and locked it up. I read and practised only on electronics. In other words, I went back to the Spartan days of my pre-college days … Only in physics and electronics…” Breaking with the habitual, calling traditions, teachings, and schools into question was something that would carry throughout all of Paik’s artistic career.

At the same time, Paik’s questioning always signified a reshuffling and served to transport what he’d learned into new contexts. Paik the boy genius, the video terrorist, the philosopher, the enfant terrible, the media star. At first glance, these roles seem as incompatible as the diverse manifestations of his artistic activity.




Nam June Paik:TV Buddha, 1974 Closed Circuit –
video installation. ©Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

In TV Buddha (1974), probably his most well-known work, the stone Buddha meditating contemplatively before his video likeness on the monitor facing him presents an opposing pole to the hectic performance images showing Paik injuring himself or the cellist Charlotte Moorman being arrested (following the striptease performance of Paik’s Opera Sexotronique in the mid-sixties, both Moorman and the artist were taken into custody). Paik’s simple gesture of taking the reduced white line on the screen of a defective TV set, turning it 90 degrees, and calling it Zen for TV seems worlds apart from the gigantic opulence of the video tower The More The Better, which he installed for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and which was comprised of 1,003 monitors. Paik once said: ”Actually, I have no principles. I go where the empty roads are.” In this sense, his works unite a baffling pragmatism capable of forging new paths with the concern for an art th at can express itself beyond the boundaries of doctrine, one that doesn’t rely upon words or text to serve the direct experience of self-revelation.


The More the Better, 1988 Three-Channel
video installation with 1003 monitors, steel construction,
height: 56 ft. Installied for the opening of the Olympic Games,
Seoul, 1988, National Museum of Modern Art, Seoul, 1988
©Photo: Yong-woo Lee


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