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Nam June Paik
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essay Nam June Paik, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Nam June Paik’s first use of television as an artistic material, in 1963, is a benchmark moment in the history of art. Since then, he has explored every corner of the vast aesthetic potential of television and video technology, an odyssey that has earned him the nickname “the Father of Video Art.” But his first love—and the subject of his academic training during the 1950s—was musical composition. Paik wrote a thesis on Arnold Schoenberg and later studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was experimenting with electronic sound at his studio in Darmstadt, Germany. His most important encounter was with John Cage, whose Zen-influenced, antimaterialist approach profoundly changed Paik’s thinking as well as his art.

His performances of this period were intensely physical, visual, often shocking, and sometimes violent. Years later Cage recalled, “His work is fascinating, and often rather frightening. Now I would think twice about attending one of his performances. He generates a real sense of danger, and sometimes goes further than we are willing to accept.”1 Paik doused himself with water, banged his head on the piano keyboard, leapt, yelled, and drank water from his own shoe. This “action music,” he explained, was an attempt to renew the ontological, or essential, nature of music rather than just its form.2 He was in great demand on the avant-garde circuit, performing throughout Europe with the nascent Fluxus group. During these years he also made his first altered televisions by manipulating the horizontal and vertical hold controls to obtain distorted images, or hooking televisions to interactive radio controls to make sound “visible” on-screen.

Performance, music, video, and sculpture come together seamlessly in the objects Paik made for Charlotte Moorman, the cellist who became his chief collaborator after 1964. Two key works, TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), are in the Walker Art Center’s collection. The former is an ungainly assemblage of two small picture tubes inside plexiglass cases, which was held on Moorman’s body by an arrangement of clear plastic straps. The images on the monitors could be broadcast television, videotape, or closed-circuit views of the audience; at times the pictures were changed, modulated, and regenerated by the sounds produced by Moorman’s cello as she played.3TV Cello is a stack of three picture tubes, also inside plexiglass boxes, that mimics the shape of a cello. Paik fitted it with three strings and tuning pegs on a plexiglass neck; like TV Bra, its images changed with the performer’s actions.

Moorman noted wryly that TV Cello was the first innovation in cello design since 1600,4 and both objects were part of Paik’s attempt to personalize the new technology. He claimed in 1969 that “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 … to look for the new, imaginative, and humanistic ways of using our technology.”5 He has since been at the forefront of experimentation with moving-image technology, making works that range from single-channel video collages such as Global Groove (1973) to monumental installations of dozens of television monitors to his recent Transmission (2002), an outdoor laser-beam projection controlled by his own performance on the piano.

In 1967, Paik was included in the Walker’s exhibition Light/Motion/Space. He showed Electronic Waltz (1966), a color television set that displayed gyrating abstract shapes through the action of a magnet attached to its picture tube.6 A decade later he produced Anti-Gravity Study (1976) for another Walker show, The River: Images of the Mississippi. This time, he suspended thirty monitors from the gallery ceiling and animated them with footage of steamboats, fish, shorelines, and other imagery evocative of river life. In 1987, when then–Walker Director Martin Friedman approached Paik about acquiring a new work, the artist suggested combining elements from the two earlier pieces to make a new one, which was eventually titled 66-76-89 (1990). At its base is the original blond wood set from Electronic Waltz, now retrofitted with electronic circuitry that simulates the original image. On it Paik placed a stack of thirty-two monitors showing footage from Anti-Gravity Study as well as newer video material. The installation provides a mini-survey of two decades of Paik’s work, but also embodies his rich history with this institution.

  1. John Cage, For the Birds (Boston: Marion Boyars, 1981), 167.

  2. Nam June Paik, “New Ontology of Music (PAIK),” reprinted in Nam June Paik: Videa ‘n’ Videology 1959–1973, exh. cat. (Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1974), unpaginated.

  3. Edith Decker-Phillips, Paik Video (Barrytown, New York: Barrytown, Ltd., 1998), 124. For exhibition purposes, Paik has suggested that the monitors show tapes of broadcast television from 1969 (Curator’s notes, 1991, Walker Art Center Archives).

  4. She made the remark in Paik’s video Global Groove (1973). See John Hanhardt, The Worlds of Nam June Paik (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000), 53.

  5. Paik statement written in conjunction with the exhibition TV as a Creative Medium (Howard Wise Gallery, New York, 1969), reprinted in Videa ‘n’ Videology, unpaginated.

  6. Paik got the set from Jasper Johns, who had found it left behind by the previous owners of a house he bought on Riverside Drive in Manhattan in 1963. He decided he didn’t want it and gave it to Paik, whom he had recently met. According to Johns, Paik had not yet used color television in his work. Johns, conversation with the author, June 24, 2002.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Nam June Paik.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center