Nam June Paik - Biography and Legacy
Korean American Composer, Performer, Sculptor, Video and Digital Artist
Seoul, South Korea
Miami, Florida, United States
enable us to shape the TV canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollack and
as lyrically as Jasper Johns
Biography of Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik was born into a bourgeois manufacturing family in 1932 Seoul, during a turbulent time when Korea was under Japanese rule (1910-1945). Whereas most Koreans were only granted access to a primary school education under restrictions by the Japanese, Paik was trained as a classical pianist from a very young age. Perhaps this was due to the fact that his father was later rumored to be a Chinilpa, or Japanese sympathizer, whose successful business also contributed greatly to the economic capital of the time. In 1950 at the onset of the Korean War, Paik's family fled to Hong Kong, and later moved to Japan. They first arrived in the port city of Kobe and stayed at a Japanese inn for six months before they settled into a Western-style house, a rarity in those days. The house was in the seaside town of Kamakura, home of the famous Great Buddha statue that Paik often visited and which possibly inspired some of his later works, such as TV Buddha (1974).
Paik's family home was fairly high-tech house for those days, which planted seeds for his lifelong interest in emerging technologies. In 1954, Paik's family bought a large Zenith TV, which was the first television in the entire neighborhood, and all their neighbors frequently came to visit and watch it. In 1956, spurred by his hunger for this new visual medium, Paik got a Bell and Howell eight-millimeter movie camera, enabling his first amateur attempts at filmmaking.
The Paik family was quite cosmopolitan. Their home was filled with records of many classical composers including Beethoven, as well as jazz and swing. His mother drove around in a slick little German Opel. Paik formed a huge appreciation for all kinds of art. He would come to tell his nephew Ken Hakuta - an American inventor and television personality - that just buying a record, book, or magazine, was never a waste of money, even if you never listened to the music or read a word of the book. He felt that supporting artists was a worthy and essential investment.
Early Training and Work
In 1956, Paik received a BA in aesthetics from the University of Tokyo, where he also studied music and art history and wrote his thesis on the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1957, he went to West Germany, which had recently emerged as a bustling center of new music and performance. While there, he studied with composer Thrasybulus Georgiades at the University of Munich for a year and then with composer Woflgang Fortner at the International Music College in Freiburg for two years.
In Germany, Paik met artists Joseph Beuys and John Cage, whose cutting-edge avant-garde actions and performances would be influential in diverting the course of his artistic career. Inspired by Cage's use of everyday sounds and noises in his music, Paik would adopt similar techniques in his own work. This would soon usher his membership into the Fluxus movement, which was formed in the early 1960s around an international and interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, designers and poets known for their experimental contributions to different artistic media and disciplines.
Paik's work rapidly began to expand outside the box of his classical training. In Hommage à John Cage (1959), he employed audiotape and performance to attack traditional musical instrumentation and compositional practices by interweaving piano chords, screaming, bits of classical music, and sound effects together. His use of introducing performative elements into audio works was revolutionary. In 1961 Paik performed Simple, Zen for Head and Étude Platonique No. 3, in which the artist's unexpected and sudden body movements accompanied his signature soundtracks. In 1962 he participated in the Fluxus International Festival of New Music in Wiesbaden - the first Fluxus event organized by George Maciunas. The next year Paik held his first exhibition - a seminal debut, entitled Exposition of Music - Electronic Television, at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. This marked the beginning of his transition to inventor of a new art form, which utilized Fluxus philosophies and also introduced television as a viable instrument. In the exhibition, thirteen televisions, representing individual pieces, lay on their backs and sides with their screen images altered. For example, Zen for TV (1963) reduced the television picture to a horizontal line while Kuba TV (1963) shrank and expanded the image on the television set according to the changing volume. The exhibition was also remembered for Joseph Beuys's participation, after he took an ax and smashed Paik's installed pianos into pieces.
The camaraderie Paik made in Germany with Beuys, Cage, George Maciunas, and cellist Charlotte Moorman supported his metamorphosis from musician, composer, and performer to a multimedia artist. The group often overlapped performances, colluding on elements of spontaneous surprise for audiences. In one example, Paik was playing Chopin on the piano in Cologne, after which he rushed into the audience to cut shreds into Cage and pianist David Tudor's clothes, then dumped shampoo upon their heads. These friends gradually became his extended family, cementing his role within the Fluxus movement and creating the early stage for the explorative work that would soon evolve into some of the most important art of the 20th century.
In 1963, Paik briefly returned to Tokyo. He brought with him a radical new piece of equipment that would foreshadow his eventual title as the "father of video art." The Sony Port-a-Pak was the first commercially available portable videotape recorder, and Paik started an avid experimentation with it. In Tokyo, he worked with the television technician and electronics engineer Shuya Abe, a crucial assistant in helping Paik realize his projects. Together, Paik and Abe constructed Robot K-456 (1964), Paik's first automated robot. The piece was shown in a series of performance-based projects in New York City and Germany through the end of the 1960s.
In 1964, Paik moved permanently to New York City as part of a significant emigration of artists from Europe to the United States.
Paik had been in a perpetual self-imposed "exile," until he settled in New York. The city's diversity was a source of inspiration to him and he often spoke of the heterogeneity of New York as being the great strength and possibility of the United States. The television, entertainment, and communications industries, where his lifelong interest lay, were centered in Manhattan as well. Famously, it was in New York in 1965 where the first piece of so-called "video art" was created when Paik claimed his video footage of the Pope's visit to be a serious artwork. The footage was shown, later on the day of its capturing, at a screening at the Café A Go Go in Greenwich Village. Albeit grainy, it proved a revolutionary new way to consider art.
In New York, Paik expanded his engagement with video and television, and exhibited his work at the New School, Galerie Bonino, and the Howard Wise Gallery. In 1965, while using a portable camcorder, Paik became fascinated with the transmission and manipulation of video imagery. For example, in Magnet TV (1965) the artist distorted an existing video image by placing a large horseshoe magnet on top of a black-and-white TV set. In 1969 during a residency sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Boston public television station WGBH-TV, Paik was finally able to realize his dream of freely altering video image by successfully constructing a video-synthesizer (with Shuya Abe's assistance). The Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer transformed electronic moving-image making, as it was one of the earliest machines that allowed the artist to manipulate existing videos, combine images from multiple sources, and shape the TV canvas like a piece of artwork. When Paik exhibited the Synthesizer at Galeria Bonino in New York, he encouraged visitors to use it, to perform in front of the camera, and to play with their own footage, thus becoming participants and directors themselves. The interactive aspect of the synthesizer corresponded to Paik's longstanding philosophy in favor of the democratic and egalitarian sharing of technology through art. The synthesizer was also applied in his later seminal works including Global Groove (1973), Guadalcanal Requiem (1977), and Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984).
Paik also met his Japanese-born wife, Shigeko Kubota, in New York. The two got married in 1977. Kubota, dubbed the "vice president of Fluxus" by Maciunas, not only fostered Paik's home life, but also collaborated with him on video artworks. Her influence on Paik, in terms of the exploration of the aesthetic, technological, emotive, and even organic potential of video art, merits further study.
In the 1970s, Paik continued experimenting with television and video. His philosophical TV Buddha series, first executed in 1974, playfully expressed the paradoxical relationship between technology and human spirituality, which had been under constant debate since the modern age. In these pieces, he commonly placed real life Buddha statues in front of screens on which other Buddhas were shown - spurring viewers to join in the consideration of these two very different yet parallel aspects of humanity.
In the early 1980s, Paik returned to his earlier interest in cybernetics and robotic art, and created his first series of video sculptures, which epitomized the humanization of technology. One of Paik's rare talents was that he seemed to always be one step ahead in predicting through his artwork the role that rapidly progressing technologies would have within society. One illustration, his Family of Robot, portrayed a benign relationship between the family unit and technological advancements. It was created during a time when Americans were becoming more comfortable with technology as an integral part of their daily lives: tvs, video games, and camcorders populated many homes and, by 1983, the first mobile phones became commercially available. Family of Robot initiated Paik's ongoing series of humorous and engaging robot portraits through the 1990s, many of which were based on historical figures, such as Genghis Khan and Li Tai Po, or his friends including John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
Paik's hybrid mix of media and the way he linked countries, cities, the avant-garde movements, and popular culture through his satellite productions manifested his utopian and democratic pursuit of cultural, economical, and informational connections and exchanges across the globe without borders. As he wrote in his "Global Groove and the Video Common Market" (written in 1970 and published in the WNET-TV Lab News in 1973), "What we need now is a champion to free trade, who will form a Video Common Market modeled after the European Common Market in its spirit and procedure; this would strip the hierarchy of TV culture and promote the free flow of video information through an inexpensive barter system or convenient free market." Art historian Caitlin Jones notes, "While there may be critiques of the European Common Market in both its original and contemporary forms, it is the utopian spirit of economic and cultural free trade that is ubiquitous in Paik's work."
In 1996, Paik suffered a serious stroke which limited his physical mobility. As he found himself losing health and strength, his work became more urgent. As his cherished ability to travel all over the world to find sites for his projects was sharply curtailed, Paik's style became characterized by a more self-reflective process in which he chose new forms of artistic expression reflecting his thoughts on global politics. For example, his last work, Chinese Memory (2005), included television sets painted with abstract, expressive shapes suggesting faces or indiscernible Chinese characters. This work also reflected Paik's particular fascination with China during his last years, when the rapid growth of the Chinese economy dominated the international scene and sat central within the art market spotlight.
The aging artist developed much of his late work in dialogue with his studio assistant, Jon Huffman, who remained at his side. Ken Hakuta, Paik's nephew, who visited and lived with him in Manhattan in the 1960s, came back after Paik's stroke to bring the artist's home into financial order and to create a secure and sustaining living environment for his final years. Paik died in Miami in 2006.
In 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the Nam June Paik archive, which includes objects (recordings, vintage electronics, and other source materials) and paper holdings (the artist's early writings on art, history, and technology along with performance scores, production notes, and plans for video installations). His major posthumous retrospective, entitled Nam June Paik: Global Visionary, was also mounted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2012-2013.
The Legacy of Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik's enormous contribution to the history of late-20th-century art largely stems from his position as the first major Video artist. His groundbreaking exploration and use of modern technologies laid the foundation for a new generation of artists in today's complex media culture. Now media arts are pervasive across the international art world as artists continue to use a mix of film, video, digital media, and the Internet to create work that is visible in museums, galleries, art fairs, online, offline, and everywhere in between.
Remembered as the "father of video art," Paik left behind a remarkable legacy to subsequent generations of artists including Bill Viola and others who explore the potential of videos. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, Viola was artist-in-residence at a number of media laboratories and television stations as well as an assistant curator at Everson Museum of Art. Through these occasions, he was exposed to Paik's art. Eventually, Viola conceived of multi-channeled video installations where viewers could be surrounded by carefully arranged screens and projections, sometimes in pitch-black rooms, an idea similar to Paik's TV Garden (1974-2000) and Megatron/Matrix (1995). Paik's influence is perhaps best described by the contemporary American multimedia artist Jon Kessler: "Paik laid the groundwork for artists like me who play with the apparatus and mechanisms of the medium, turn it in on itself, and come through the rabbit hole still believing that it's possible to make engaging, playful, and serious work."
The ideas of cultural free trade that Paik wrote about and championed have been made manifest through the birth of social media and sites such as YouTube where today's artists can distribute their work freely to an international population. The possibilities offered today via the Internet hearken back to Paik's early predictions of an electronic superhighway.
Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, claims, "If Picasso stands astride the first half of the 20th century like a colossus, Nam June Paik is the center of gravity for all that was new in the second half of that hundred-year span. We are only now learning how profoundly his imagination embraced and transformed our world."