Nam June Paik (pronounced pake), who passed away in early 2006, was known mostly as a pioneer in the field of video art in the 1960's, a new medium at that time. Since then, many younger artists have worked with video, including Bill Viola and Tony Oursler. Trained in music, Paik became interested in electronic music in Germany in the 1950's, as well as working with multiple media, including visual art. As a child he was fascinated first with the then new medium of radio, and with the medium of television that followed it. Combining his art and music interests with his interest in technology, he first produced video sculptures, installations and performances. He since explored other technologies, such as sound, computers and lasers.
He was born in Seoul, Korea in 1932, but he and his family left in 1949 because of the Korean War. He first studied music composition in Korea, then at the University of Tokyo he studied music history, art history and philosophy, graduating in 1956. From there he went to Germany, to continue his studies at the University of Munich and at the University of Freiburg as a musician and composer (he is a pianist). In the late 1950's, Germany was a center in the field of electronic music. Among others, Paik met John Cage, an influential avant garde composer, and was influenced greatly by Cage's ideas. Cage, influenced by eastern philosophy, believed that music is all around us, in the everyday sounds, rather than just in the symphony hall. Cage's book, Silence, which contained aphorisms and observations, was influential not just in music, but in other arts, such as visual art and dance. Cage was also associated with Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist, and with Merce Cunningham, the avant garde choreographer, so there was an element of Neo-Dada in their thinking and their art. Paik became more interested in making visual art at this time, particularly multi-media work, combining his interests in music, art and electronics. He also met George Maciunas, the founder of the avant garde art movement Fluxus, and joined the group in the early 1960's, participating in their multimedia performances and happenings.
He decided at this time to move from the field of electronic music to electronic music combined with television, to "create something new - the moving painting, with sound." Throughout the 20th century, artists had continued to search for new forms - collage, assemblage, the readymade (found object), etc. With the increase in technology, it was only a matter of time before artists tried to make use of this new field. The century had become increasingly interactive, and mobile - after moving pictures and television were invented, painting seemed suddenly static. As crowds rushed to the movie theater, perhaps some artists felt a desire to compete with this new dynamism, adding not only movement, but sound as well, to their work. In Germany, Paik had his first one person show, where he presented prepared and altered television monitors - their broadcast transmissions distorted by him, and scattered around the room, on their sides and upside down. He also created interactive video works, the first use of the medium in fine art, producing original kaleidoscopic images with luminous color. His show in Germany was the first video art exhibition.
In 1963 he was in Japan, creating the first video synthesizer with engineer Shuya Abe. In 1964 he moved to New York, and continued his work with electronic media. His first solo show in America had television experiments, robots, Zen boxes and one Zen can among its offerings. During his life, he collaborated with many artists and musicians, including the avant garde cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, artists Allan Kaprow, Salvador Dali, Laurie Anderson and Joseph Beuys, and also David Bowie, and Paik's video artist wife, Shigeko Kubota. He also partnered with designers, engineers, laser expert Norman Ballard and sound artist Stephen Vitiello, along with many others in his quest for newer forms.
Paik's early video work was more literal in its approach, using television monitors and video to create sculptures and installations to express his ideas about nature, technology, and the arts. TV Garden, a sculpture piece from 1974, consists of dozens of video monitors situated amid many live plants. The TV's have a surrealistic combination of various images and sounds. Other sculptures created from installations of TV monitors include live fish swimming in tanks and in the old TV's themselves - floating serenely amid cacophonous noise and images of Rudolf Nureyev and jumbo jets. Some sculptures represented various animals, constructed from piles of television and video monitors; others contained references to eastern culture, such as Buddha, and references to influential scientists Galileo, Newton and Darwin.
A more recent work, Piano Piece of 1993, is an homage to his friend and mentor John Cage, who died in 1992. It consists of a piano piled high with monitors displaying images, including Cage, and various audio and visual equipment. A computer program by Richard Titlebaum plays music by Cage on the piano, and Paik's hands and feet are shown in several of the monitors as he plays, as well as choreographer and friend Merce Cunningham. Paik developed inventive visual effects, which are displayed on the monitors, creating a dynamic and coordinated visual presentation. Megatron/Matrix of 1995 was a billboard-sized installation piece on exhibit in the National Museum of American Art, which contained scenes of traditional Korean rituals and footage of David Bowie in concert, with both live video and computer-generated animation. A large bird flies on one large screen, alternated with giant flags from participating nations.
His work has included global television projects, artistic videotapes, installations, performances, sculptures, and films, combining visual art and sound. His music compositions had been based on mathematics, and he transferred this method of composing to visual art, as well as on chance, as Duchamp and Cage did, from the influence of Dada. References to culture - high and low, ancient and modern, natural and technological - abound, from the Egyptian pyramids to cuneiform tablets, from Mozart's Requiem to MTV. He was interested in the relationship of art to technology, and how technology is used and abused; he was also interested in a global consciousness and understanding, and a pacifistic use of new technologies, from satellites to the Internet, and believed that multimedia fine art can contribute to this reality, in a more meaningful way than the applied arts or popular culture.
During the 1990's Paik's work became even more iconic and sophisticated, technically and expressively. At his exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2000, he created an environment which used the total space of Frank Lloyd Wright's building, showcasing his early and late work. The centerpiece of the exhibition, a site-specific work called Modulations in Sync (2000), consisted of two laser installations which were created with Norman Ballard - Sweet and Sublime consisted of a rapidly changing display of geometric shapes which echoed Wright's design; Jacob's Ladder consisted of a seven-story waterfall cascading from the top of the museum to its floor, with laser projections passing through it. A group of monitors on the floor faced up, displaying changing imagery. Another piece in the exhibition, Pyramid II, from 1997, is comprised of laser, prisms, motors and a mirrored chamber. He said that he wanted to unite the high and low in art - to create a new art with new materials; he wanted to communicate to a global audience, so he was conscious of the need not to go 'over people's heads,' but rather to aim his message in a musical language that people can accept - i.e., the rhythms of contemporary music. He also cautioned artists not to get so caught up in the technology that their message is obliterated, or that the artistic content is invisible.
During the 1970's and 1980's, Paik continued to develop and refine his work, reflecting the new global consciousness with live multimedia satellite broadcasts and increasingly sophisticated technology and expression. He also taught and became a social activist during this time. With symbols of ancient Greece (Icarus) and modern culture (New York City), east (traditional Korean rituals) and west (Rodin's Thinker), nature (birds) and technology (his satellite performance Good Morning Mr. Orwell), his work became less literal in its presentation, and sonorously poetic in its iconography and subtle blending of technologies.
There is a logical continuation between Paik's early performance art with the group Fluxus, and his later use of video and other technologies. In an interview in 2000, Paik referred to his use of the medium of laser since the late 1960's as having a more spiritual quality; he experienced a stroke in 1996, and said that these two things - the medium of laser and his stroke - seem to be part of a different kind of world. He concentrated on this medium from the late 1990's.
Paik worked for four decades, and had major exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums in New York City, the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, and many other international venues. In 1974, he coined the term "information superhighway" in a study he did for the Rockefeller Foundation. For the future, although he had begun to slow down in his own work, he felt that the medium of holography and the Internet are the most promising mediums; he envisioned the Internet as a way to bring nations together, in particular the nation of China, and hoped that this union will affect the world in a positive way.
Paik spent his life seeking new, imaginative and humanistic ways of using the technologies developed during the 20th century. Some themes he explored in his work are: bringing the past and the present together; issues that arise from new technologies; the role of artists in helping us to understand the changes around us; breaking down the barriers between "high" and "low" art; bringing together art and everyday life; combining visual art and music. A site-specific (created especially for a site) installation at the University of California at San Diego, Something Pacific, consists of old TV monitors embedded in the landscape outside of the building. Also part of this piece are Buddha statues and Rodin's Thinker. Inside the lobby of the building are "living" TV's which contain interactive programs; this use of ancient and modern, and living and inanimate ("dead") was the type of pairing Paik was interested in.
He was also interested in using technology toward globalization, with satellites and the Internet. With satellites covering activity such as armed conflict, global awareness can bring enough viewer sympathy to halt these conflicts. International cultural works, with input from many nations, can also help bring the world together, showing diverse and seemingly "opposed" cultures, such as indigenous and contemporary populations; and glimpses of everyday life in cultures usually seen as very different from one another, emphasizing our commonality. We can also see commonality in various times - the union of art and technology in previous times, such as ancient Egyptian pyramids, and other Egyptian technical know-how, such as mummification and pigment-making. East and West, racial, religious and national boundaries can hopefully be overcome with these technologies.
The artistic possibilities in the new technologies are also great; such as combining serious fine art and popular art, and music with video (as in MTV). Music and art work so well together, and combining the two mediums can produce much good art. The idea of a 'moving' painting, and 'visual' music, is really exciting, for artists and viewers. Certainly in the future these two areas will be combined more and more in creating kinetic images with sound. The use of lasers is another exciting possibility for artists, in creating works with light, or composed entirely of light. Paik referred to his combination of painting and technology as "an electric canvas," using a brush made of light.
These new kinds of art are perhaps almost a total break with Modernism, with its centuries-old traditions of life drawing and composition, just as traditions in other areas have faded around us in the last 100 years. But the arts have always been constantly changing, along with all other fields; they are always trying to shake us out of our customary ways of seeing.
Paik's work reveals how TV has altered our Western landscape; in America it has perhaps defined our landscape, as it does in his piece Something Pacific. He used the disjointed and frenetic qualities of our TV experience in his work, but he combined these qualities with images of ancient and timeless, poetic and meditative. The instantaneous and the contemplative are combined, reflecting and enriching our world. Learn more about Paik's work.