Nam June Paik Artworks
Korean American Composer, Performer, Sculptor, Video and Digital Artist
Seoul, South Korea
Miami, Florida, United States
Progression of Art
After Paik's departure from Germany and before his arrival in the United States in 1964, he spent a year in Tokyo with his family where he met Shuya Abe, an engineer specialized in experimental physics and electronics, who became Paik's long-term collaborator and technical assistant. During the sojourn in Japan, Paik devised his first automated robot, Robot K-456, with Abe's help. Paik humorously named this life-sized anthropomorphic robot after Mozart's piano concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456 (a catalogue number in the Köchel listing - an inclusive, chronological catalogue of compositions by Mozart). Robot K-456 is made out of bits and pieces of metal, cloth, a data recorder, wheels for walking, and a loudspeaker playing John F. Kennedy's speeches. The materials reflect Paik's long-term interest in transforming cheap, disposable objects into aesthetic forms associated with new technologies. Originally androgynous - with breasts and a penis, the robot was programmed to walk, talk, and defecate beans via twenty radio channels and a remote control. Its physical composition, hybrid-gendered nature, and remote-controlled movement embody Paik's desire to humanize robotics without hiding its bare-bone structure and materiality under the glossy metallic skin.
Robot K-456 was built for impromptu street performances, as Paik recounted, "I imagined it would meet people on the street and give them a split-second surprise, like a sudden show." It was first featured in the performance project Robot Opera (1964) at Judson Hall in New York, alongside Charlotte Moorman's cello performance, and in a series of performance-based projects through the end of the 1960s. In 1982, the robot returned to action during the artist's first major museum exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At one point of the exhibition, Paik took the robot out of the museum to orchestrate an "accident" on the streets, a performance titled First Accident of the Twenty-First Century. The robot was made to walk up the sidewalk outside the building across Madison Avenue. While crossing 75th Street, it was struck and thrown onto the crosswalk by a car driven by artist William Anastasi. The local CBS affiliate covered the incident. When the CBS reporter asked Paik what it all meant, Paik answered that he was practicing how to cope with the catastrophe of technology in the 21st century. He also noted that the robot was twenty years old and had not had its Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony) yet. Playful and extravagant, the performance concluded with the "body" of the robot being wheeled into the museum. This street performance demonstrated that Paik did not see his artworks as inert and complete but rather as "living" objects that could be constantly remade and refashioned.
The hybrid, complex nature of Robot K-456, with its unexpected juxtaposition of visual materials, sounds, performances, and popular culture, embodied Paik's foresight into the future of robotics. He was also revolutionary because he claimed robotics as a viable medium for use in multimedia art, triumphantly declaring the potential for artistic innovation through technological means. Throughout his career, Paik would adamantly advocate that the artist's duty was to reimagine technology in the service of art and culture.
Twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminum profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out - Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof
TV Buddha is one of Paik's best-known pieces. This sculpture centers on an 18th-century sculpture of a brassy Buddha posed with a tranquil meditation mudra (a symbolic hand gesture used in Buddhism). A video camera in front of him simultaneously records the statue and displays his reflection on a futuristic looking, sleek white television screen. In this closed circuit loop, the Buddha constantly faces his own projected image, caught in an eternal present tense and unable to transcend from his own physicality. The infinite play of the live electronics indicates that the Buddha is doomed to stay on the surface of reality forever caught in the dance between the mind and object reality.
In its simplest reading, this installation highlights the juxtaposition between the East and the West, or the historical and the modern, But more complexly, it reveals some fundamental issues brought up by technology, including the ambivalent position of religion, history, and images of our selves in contemporary society when viewed upon a screen, once removed from reality. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan states, "It is the continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves."
The success of TV Buddha (1974) triggered a series of similar works by Paik. Later variations of the work include Stone Buddha/Burnt TV (1982), which features a Buddha observing a burned television without any electronic power, TV Buddha (1982), featuring a Buddha contemplating a monitor covered by a mound of dirt, and TV Rodin (1982), which places a miniature reproduction of Rodin's The Thinker on top of a Sony Watchman. The proliferance of the Buddha in Paik's work throughout the years might be seen as society's continual contemplation of its own image through the mirrors of ever-morphing technological advancements; an important introspection by the artist regarding his own ever-evolving relationship with modernity.
Video installation, closed-circuit, 18th-century Buddha statue - Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
TV Bra for Living Sculpture
Upon his arrival in New York in 1964, Paik began working with the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman, who would become his primary collaborator until her death in 1991. This series of performances with Moorman reflects Paik's longstanding interest in introducing manipulated television to the public and his attempts to humanize television and video technology through collaboration with the body. In this string of seminal projects including Robot Opera (1964), Opera Sextronique (1967), TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), and TV Cello (1971), Moorman's body, often in various stages of nudity, functioned as a canvas onto which Paik attached his prominent electronic objects. For example, in Opera Sextronique, staged for a private audience at the Filmmakers' Cinematheque (125 West 41st Street) in New York, Moorman performed as a topless cellist, which confronted the cultural norms of the time and resulted in her arrest for indecency. Moorman protested to the police that she was "only performing Paik's score."
TV Bra for Living Sculpture was performed by Moorman as part of the groundbreaking group exhibition "TV as a Creative Medium" at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. Moorman, the "living sculpture" and an indefatigable performer, wore two functioning television sets over her bare breasts as she played her cello. The television screens alternately featured live television programming, prerecorded video footage, and a closed-circuit camera's live feed of the audience.
Through these projects, Paik brought video technology to a human scale and consequently redefined the medium, conventionally identified with public mass entertainment, as something accessible on an extremely intimate level. Paik reflected in 1969 on their collaboration: "The real issue implied in Art and Technology is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium ... TV Brassiere for Living Sculpture (Charlotte Moorman) is also one sharp example to humanize electronics ... and technology. By using TV as bra ... the most intimate belonging of [a] human being, we will demonstrate the human use of technology, and also stimulate viewers, not for something mean but stimulate their phantasy to look for the new, imaginative and humanistic ways of using our technology."
By collaborating with Moorman, Paik also emphasized his belief that art and technology were important tools of human connectivity paving the way for future performance/new media hybrids.
Cello, 2 television sets, microphone, amplifiers, deflection coils, "fussbedienungsgerate," cables - Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1734.01
Good Morning Mr. Orwell
Beside his long-term passion for the medium of television, Paik was also interested in exploring satellite technology as a means to disseminate information in a more democratic and efficient manner across the globe. As shown in Paik's report "Expanded Education for the Paper-Less Society" to the Rockefeller Foundation (1968), the artist predicted the rise of an "instant global university" where "a girl in Kentucky wants to study the Japanese Koto instrument, and a graduate at U.C.L.A. wants to experiment with certain Persian or Afghanistan musical instruments." The artist questioned, "How would they do this?"; and offered his own answer, "The malleable television (including videotapes) would enable individual lessons for many subjects to be given from anywhere to (everywhere)."
In order to realize his vision of a borderless world and to showcase the possibility that art could bring the world together as one, Paik produced his first major international satellite broadcast Good Morning Mr. Orwell in 1984. The televised event combined simultaneously broadcast footage of live programs in New York and Paris with video interventions by the artist, using the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer - one of the earliest machines co-designed by Paik and his collaborator Shuya Abe, which allowed the artist to alter and manipulate existing video images. The program was a rebuttal to author George Orwell's dystopian view of the effect technological advances on future society as described in his novel 1984 in which the Government surveils citizens through Closed Circuit television and turns technology into a devil; Paik intended to demonstrate, via Good Morning Mr. Orwell, the benign, or more positive effects of technology on our lives. Paik's live broadcast, a collaboration between the television stations WNET/THIRTEEN in New York and F.R. 3 in Paris, aired on Sunday, January 1, 1984, and was transmitted simultaneously to France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, and the United States, facing over 25 million viewers. Notable artists - Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others - participated in the broadcast to create a dynamic and unprecedented program that transcended time zones and cultures. Good Morning Mr. Orwell also witnessed a crucial moment in history: as someone who had lived in East Asia, West Germany, and the United States, Paik sought to understand the world toward the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new more interconnected millennium through this project.
This work can be seen as an essential forebear to today's mass connectivity through the Internet that allows artists to share and view works on an international level outside the confines of the normal gallery, museum, or geographically static setting.
Video; color, sound. 38 minutes - Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Family of Robot: Baby
In the early 1980s, after experimenting with television and video images for about two decades, Paik came back to the idea of creating robots, to further his goal of humanizing technologies. Family of Robot, the first series of video sculptures that Paik created, consists of three generations of family members: a grandmother and grandfather; mother and father; aunt and uncle; and children. This family structure is a reflection of Paik's traditional Korean upbringing. The generational differences within the group are represented through Paik's conscious choice of materials, narrating a unified history of family and technology. The grandparents' heads are constructed of 1930s radios and their bodies of 1940s television frames refitted with Sony or Quasar screens, while the parents' heads are more recent than their bodies. The children are made of newer televisions. In some cases, the children's heads are two decades more advanced than their bodies, and in others, both sections are made of uniform parts. For example, the Art Institute's Baby - one of nine unique baby robots - was assembled from thirteen Samsung monitors, which at the time were the most up-to-date equipment manufactured in Korea. This group of sculptures, viewed as a whole, represent the history of media hardware evolution in the 20th century.
In order to indicate the gender difference between the robots, Paik used monitors with rounded consoles to represent females, while their male counterparts were constructed from more angular models. Each robot also has a unique personality shown through its monitors that display looped video imagery carefully curated by the artist. For instance, Baby displays an artist-created videotape which consists of flashing, vibrant images of hearts, psychedelic patterns, revolving bands and planets, and excerpts of newscasts depicting people, especially children, in Africa and India.
Albeit the robots' anthropomorphic forms, they have a relative human scale and were assembled by hand, which creates an immediate physical connection with the viewer's own body. Humanizing technology through this series, Paik encourages the viewer to "resonate" with technology and to take an active role in it rather than accepting it blindly, commenting that, "One must . . . know technology very well in order to be able to overcome it. (The purpose of video art) is to liberate people from the tyranny of TV (and its images)."
Single-channel video sculpture: thirteen television monitors and aluminum armature - The Art Institute of Chicago
Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii
Electronic Superhighway - constructed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing - illustrates Paik's understanding of a diverse nation through the lens of media technology. This work is a monumental presentation of the physical and cultural contours of America: each state is represented through a video clip that resonates with the artist's own impression of that state, suggesting that our image of America has always been molded by film and television. For example, Oklahoma shows flashing images of potatoes, while Kansas presents the Wizard of Oz. The representations of some states are based on Paik's personal connections: composer John Cage in Massachusetts, performance artist Charlotte Moorman in Arkansas, and choreographer Merce Cunningham in Washington.
In 1964, when Paik came to the United States after having lived in Japan and Germany, he was astonished by the enormous scale of America and its newly built interstate highway system which was only nine years old at the time. The highway system ambitiously connected the nation together and claimed to offer everyone the freedom to "see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet." Paik's choice of the video clips' fast speed imitates the experience of seeing the country "as though from a passing car." Echoing the physical highway system, which facilitates the transportation of people and goods, "electronic superhighway" - a term invented by Paik - suggests a network of virtual communication through the screens of televisions and home computers, which became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, with the help of cables and the Internet.
While Paik's work is generally interpreted as a celebration of the artist's utopian idea that the "electronic superhighway" allows us to share information and communicate with each other beyond geographical boundaries, this particular work can also be read as exposing the problems brought by technology. For example, the video clips allude to how each state's identity becomes homogenous and stereotypical through film and television. Also, the physical scale of the work and number of simultaneously played clips make it difficult for the viewer to absorb all details at once, resulting in what we now call "information overload." Electronic Superhighway, made before the dominance of the Internet, manifests Paik's bold vision and prescience regarding the benefits and problems brought by the information age.
49-channel closed circuit video installation, neon, steel and electronic components - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Megatron/Matrix, holding 215 monitors, resembles a hypnotic, flashing billboard. The artwork consists of two sections. The Megatron is a massive grid of monitors placed side by side in straight rows and columns. The screens show smaller clips in an array of disparate real world images from the Seoul Olympics to Korean folk rituals to modern dance. On the boundaries between screens, larger, animated images emerge, demonstrating the idea of a world without borders in the electronic age. If the Megatron conveys the vast reach of media culture, the smaller section, the Matrix, emphasizes its impact on each of us. In Matrix, the monitors are arranged in a way that the images seem to spiral inward around a lone, central screen showing two partially nude women. The artist may be suggesting that our bodies are our primal connection to the world, but like the lone screen we are surrounded by "too much information."
The piece symbolizes Paik's prophetic awareness of the power of video technology and how it is realized in the new millennium. Today, there are myriad streams of arts, imagery, or entertainment available to us at all times via the smart phone, the television, and the computer.
Eight-channel video installation with custom electronics; color, sound - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.