“I come from a very poor country and I am poor. I have to entertain people every second,” Nam June Paik has said. The tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating nature of the quip is characteristic of Paik’s attitude toward art making. A member of the international avant-garde Fluxus movement, Paik is best known for creating massive sculptural installations dominated by television monitors. His prediction that we would one day develop international telecommunications networks has prompted scholars to dub him a visionary, while his early experiments with the emerging technology of video have earned him the oversize epithet “father of video art.”
Paik’s career began in music. Born in 1932 to a wealthy family of textile manufacturers, Paik trained as a classical pianist in Seoul before fleeing to Japan with his parents and siblings upon the outbreak of the Korean War. He enrolled at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote a thesis on the German composer Arnold Schoenberg, then moved to West Germany to pursue graduate studies at Munich University. An electrifying encounter in 1958 with the composer John Cage inspired Paik to incorporate objects, theatrical interruptions, and pre-recorded sounds into his compositions. Termed “action music,” works like Étude for Pianoforte (1960)—which concluded when Paik leapt into the audience and cut off Cage’s tie—caught the attention of artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote a part for Paik in Originale (1961), and George Maciunas, who invited Paik to join Fluxus. In 1964, Paik moved to New York, where he met the cellist Charlotte Moorman. The pair embarked on a decades-long partnership that generated performances including Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saëns (1964) and Opera Sextronique (1967), during which they were arrested for indecent exposure.
Paik made his first foray into video in 1963 with an exhibition in Wuppertal, West Germany, that featured Zen for TV (1963/1981) and other television sets whose receptions he had altered. With the engineer Shuya Abe, Paik began to develop more advanced technical interventions, such as Robot K-456 (1964), a remote-controlled robot that “defecated” dried beans while playing snatches of John F. Kennedy speeches, and the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer (1969), which enabled anyone to distort the color and shape of video images in real time. Later experiments with the medium spawned films like Global Groove (1973) as well as installations like Fin de Siècle II (1989) and sculptures like Untitled (1993). As with his incursions into performance, many of these pieces drew on or honored Paik’s collaborative relationships with other artists. In the two-part homage Merce by Merce by Paik (1975–76, 1978), for example, Paik worked with filmmaker Charles Atlas and fellow video pioneer Shigeko Kubota (to whom Paik was married) to celebrate the artist Marcel Duchamp and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Until his death in 2006, Paik believed in technology’s ability to foster connections among people, between nations, and across cultures. His politics emerge in the mock documentary Guadalcanal Requiem (1977/1979)—in which Paik and Moorman perform an antiwar tribute on the site of the first major World War II offensive mounted by US troops against Japan—and in the international satellite broadcast Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984), a live program that aired simultaneously in the US, France, Germany, and South Korea on New Year’s Day 1984, in rebuttal to George Orwell’s dystopian projections. But Paik’s love for technology was always mediated by his commitment to humanity. “Our life is half natural and half technological,” he declared in 1986. “Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.”
Oriana Tang, Intern, Department of Publications