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CONSERVING A NAM JUNE PAIK ALTERED PIANO

April 15, 2013  |  Behind the Scenes, Conservation
Conserving a Nam June Paik Altered Piano
Nam June Paik. Untitled. 1993. Player piano, fifteen televisions, two cameras, two laser disc players, one electric light and light bulb, and wires. Overall approximately 8' 4" x 8' 9" x 48" (254 x 266.7 x 121.9 cm), including laser disc player and lamp. Bernhill Fund, Gerald S. Elliot Fund, gift of Margot Paul Ernst, and purchase. © 2013 Estate of Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik. Untitled. 1993. Player piano, 15 televisions, two cameras, two laser disc players, one electric light and light bulb, and wires, overall approx. 8′ 4″ x 8′ 9″ x 48″ (254 x 266.7 x 121.9 cm), including laser disc player and lamp. Bernhill Fund, Gerald S. Elliot Fund, gift of Margot Paul Ernst, and purchase. © 2013 Estate of Nam June Paik

In 1993 MoMA acquired a piano modified with a floppy-disc drive player unit. In the gallery it plays jazz show tunes really loud. The piano also has 15 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors stacked on it. Some of them play two bright colorized videos with images of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. And that’s not all. The other monitors stream live-feed images of the moving piano keys and hammers from two security cameras that are mounted on the piano. The keys are lit with a spotlight on a tripod. Black cables from the monitors hang haphazardly down the sides of the piano connecting some to laserdisc decks that play the two videos, and others to video feed from the security cameras.

The work is either a conservator’s nightmare or a conservator’s dream, having every potential problem, from obsolescent exhibition and playback equipment to outdated video technology. Equally important, I was aware of the conceptual challenges linked to conserving Nam June Paik’s media sculpture. He shared authority in producing his works and in exhibiting them, which meant that many people needed to be consulted and come to agreement.

Believing in change and incorporating chance, Paik let other people make certain decisions about how to display his work, while tightly specifying others. He frequently upgraded exhibition equipment, but felt strongly about showing his videos on CRT rather than modern flat-screen monitors. His artistic practice was deeply influenced by his performance background in music, and his close friendship with John Cage influenced the happenstance and chance in his work. Touched by the Fluxus movement, he could also be playful—as in the case of our piano sculpture. He left us with no clear road map for repairing and upgrading obsolescent exhibition equipment.

We needed to perform extensive research prior to deciding how to conserve Untitled (Piano). Fortunately the Contemporary Art Council at MoMA agreed, and provided funding for both the research and conservation. As the Museum’s media conservator, I teamed up with sculpture conservation fellow Emily Hamilton to start the research.

We read through all existing documentation and spoke with curators Barbara London and Doryun Chong about their concerns. In our research we discovered that the artist approved prior changes in the work. Originally the video was on U-Matic tapes, but with his approval the tapes were migrated to laserdiscs when it was first shown at the Museum. We tested all of the monitors, cameras, and playback equipment. We learned that two of the monitors no longer functioned. We also learned that the floppy-disc piano player mounted on the underside of the keyboard was no longer manufactured.

A quick online search led us to a similar work titled Piano Piece at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Working with their staff, we identified differences between their sculpture and ours, and agreed to share information as we proceeded in our conservation project.

Before concluding the research we contacted the Nam June Paik Studios, who had generously given us backup monitors for the work shortly after the artist’s death. Their curator, Jon Huffman, visited MoMA to discuss our initial recommendations. The meeting sparked dialog in which conservation and curatorial concerns were brought to the table in light of the artist’s approach to conserving his works in the past.

Decisions were made to repair the piano, upgrade the player unit, repair the two broken monitors, and purchase backup monitors and cameras. In my next blog post I will describe how the project evolved over a two-year period.

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