Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds
Nam June Paik’s achievements in bringing technology into art outshine those of any other artist. He was also the first to use television in an artwork, an event whose 50th anniversary the EIF celebrates in a major show. Paul Dale assesses Paik’s legacy
This article is from 2013.
Like so many radical Asian artists of his generation, the original video freak, composer and cultural terrorist / spiritualist Nam June Paik was born into wealth. As Korea was being defiled by Japanese occupation in the 1930s, in preparation for the encroaching war, Paik was being privately educated in Seoul, Hong Kong and finally the ancient shogunate seat of Kamakura near Tokyo. This town-temple of Zen, this heartland of Buddhism, was to leave a profound mark on Paik and his art. But it was his subsequent studies of humanities at Tokyo University and a dissertation on Arnold Schoenberg’s music that made it possible for him to study aesthetics, specialising in European philosophy and modern music, at the universities of Munich and Cologne.
It was as an academic in mainland Europe in the late 1950s that Paik fell in with a group of artists exploring pioneering practices in performance and video art. And in 1958, Paik met John Cage in Germany, a crucial encounter that convinced Paik to combine his passions for Zen Buddhism and new music in an avant garde context. The touchpaper had been lit, and Paik followed a barnstorming 1959 performance with the legendary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen with his first exhibition. Later, his confrontational performances − which included smashing a piano and cutting off Cage’s tie − only added to his attacks on the bourgeois culture of the time. He began to collaborate with Fluxus members such as George Maciunas, and performed alongside them from the early 1960s onwards, as well as with Joseph Beuys and other like-minded artists.
Around that same time, Paik came up with what was to be a recurring motif in his work − the customised television. In 1963, he customised and exhibited 13 televisions along with a dead bull’s head at the Parnass Gallery in Wuppertal, Germany. Unhappy with contradictions in the work, Paik collaborated with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe to develop ways of manipulating the inner workings of the televisions themselves.
On moving to the USA in 1964, Paik met cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, and with her he developed performance ideas that he had been unable to realise in Europe. Through his collaborations with Moorman, and along with his acquisition of some of the first portable cameras to be released on the market by Sony, Paik’s art really came into its own.
In his 1967 performance with Moorman of Opera Sextronique, Paik went head to head with American society’s sex taboos. Police halted the performance: Park was detained, and Moorman arrested for public obscenity. In his subsequent collaborations with Moorman, Paik employed music, electronic media and her body to create video art that was at once familiar and yet totally unique to its creator. His works represent a merging of technology and the human spirit. Zen, playfulness, shamanism and communality are among the many themes that this remarkable artist engaged with right up to his death in 2006. Paik’s open-mindedness and world perspective inspired global gatherings and individual art satirists alike, and his influence should not be underrated.
Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds is, unbelievably, the first exhibition in Scotland of Paik’s work, and it contains many of his key sculpture and film works as well as recordings and archive material that captures some of his performance and music pieces. The opening weekend of Transmitted Live will be accompanied by a series of live performances to illustrate the lasting legacy and continuing influence of Paik today. These include an event featuring Paik’s longtime friend and collaborator Takehisa Kosugi, who will create ‘action music’ using an electric violin combined with sound processors and wireless transmitters. Paik’s spirit will no doubt be in the ether and the cathode rays.
Talbot Rice Gallery, 650 2210, until Sat 19 Oct, free.