By normalising the use of modern visual technologies as fine art forms, Nam June Paik earned his reputation as one of the late twentieth century’s most innovative artists. An archetypal postmodernist, Paik’s fusion of politics, religion, communications and multimedia produced provocative works which presaged the emergence of today’s mass visual culture.

Robert Perry  |  Ed YoungMi Lamine | 20 May 2020

While acclaimed as the ‘father of video art’, in reality Paik was a polymath and first trained as a musician. Born in 1932 in Korea, he graduated in aesthetics and music at the University of Tokyo before studying alongside composers at the University of Munich and Freiberg’s International Music College. In 1964 he made his home in America, where he died in 2006.

It was in Germany where Paik was heavily influenced by the avant-garde composer John Cage. The pair were part of Fluxus, an international group of experimental artists, poets and musicians who initiated Paik’s career as a conceptual artist.

As video tape recorders became widely available, Paik pioneered artistic interpretations of the form and his 1965 recording of Pope Paul VI on a Sony Portapak is seen as the beginning of video art.

Paik not only embraced emerging media, he also made prescient predictions about future developments. In 1974 he wrote of a global broadband communication network materialising that could share data and videos, and he coined the phrase “Electronic Superhighway”. As a precursor to today’s YouTubers and influencers, Paik believed every citizen could have their own TV channel and his video work was spliced with small biographical details.

In 2019, a major retrospective featuring more than 200 of Paik’s works opened at London’s Tate Modern. The exhibition showcased the full sweep of his innovations immersing viewers into robotics, films, TV sets and installations. On show for the first time since the 1993 Venice Biennale was Sistine Chapel, a room-sized piece made up of thirty-four projectors displaying Paik’s summary of his own career via mesmeric collage.

Four Major works

Mooreman and Paik, TV Bra Sculpture (1969) © Courtesy of the artists.

TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969)

After they first met in 1964, Paik and avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman successfully collaborated for decades. The pair produced challenging works with Moorman being arrested in 1967 for her nude performance in Paik’s Opera Sextronica. In TV Bra for Living Sculpture, Moorman played the cello topless with two miniature televisions attached to her breasts, with images shifting in response to her music. The humanising of electronic media through sexuality, performance art and classical music referenced burgeoning criticism that the form would lead to a desensitisation of culture.

Nam June Paik, TV Buddha (1974) © Courtesy of the artist.

TV Buddha (1974)

In Paik’s most celebrated artwork, a meditative Buddha sculpture faces a video camera which records and displays its reflection on an accompanying futuristic television. A lifelong Buddhist, Paik used the sitting icon as a motif throughout his career and made several iterations of TV Buddha right up until his death. The piece evokes Paik’s interest in Eastern and Western traditions and juxtaposes life before and after the emergence of twentieth-century technology.

Nam June Paike, Good Morning Mr Orwell (1984) © Courtesy of the artist.

Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)

The 1980s saw Paik embrace satellite broadcast technology to produce his most accomplished works. Televised on New Year’s Day 1984, this transmission was an optimistic riposte to George Orwell’s prophecy of oppressive states using television as propaganda. Reaching 25 million viewers, live events in New York and Paris were streamed to audiences in America, Europe and Korea. Several notable artists including Peter Gabriel, Allen Ginsberg and longtime collaborators Cage and Moorman performed while Paik coordinated and manipulated images. The work offered a positive statement on the possibilities of globalisation and the power of technology to cross borders and provide liberating information.

Nam June Paik, Electronic Super HighWay (2016)  at Whitechapel Gallery © Courtesy of the artist and the gallery.

Electronic Super Highway (1995)

Electronic Superhighway begins with works made at the arrival of the new millennium, and ends with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T).

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 2002.23, © Nam June Paik Estate

Short documentary made at the press opening of Nam June Paik – Noise at Tate Liverpool. This is the first major UK retrospective of Paik’s work and includes interviews with his nephew and one of the curators. Produced in partnership with Tate Liverpool and The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art And Music.

About the artist

Key Achievements

Since Paik’s death in 2006, his life’s work has gained the highest accolades including South Korea’s Order of Cultural Merit in 2007. The prestigious Smithsonian Museum bought Paik’s archives in 2009 and its 2013 retrospective Global Visionary fantastically showcased his artistic method. The Smithsonian’s purchase has enshrined the legacy of a groundbreaking artist who foretold the whole basis of our present globalised condition.

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