The word ‘revolutionary’ is a term that’s often thrown around loosely these days. But for Korean artist Nam June Paik, the pioneer of video art, that’s a term that encapsulates his entire career.
Having continually pushed at the possibilities technology could offer, Paik essentially revolutionised the art world with his incorporation of television sets, satellite broadcast and robotics into his work. Born in 1932, Paik grew up in a period of rapid technological change, from the first black and white electronic television, the first artificial satellite, and the first man on the moon. Living in a time before the advent of the internet, when few people saw the potential of such communication technology, Paik had already envisioned a future where physical boundaries would be thinned, autonomy and power of choice would belong to people, and how tech would inevitably enter every aspect of our lives on the ‘electronic super highway’ (a term he himself coined in 1974).
Charting all this, with over 180 works and archival material displayed, is landmark exhibition Nam June Paik: The Future is Now. Ending its international tour at last, the travelling exhibition finally makes its way to National Gallery Singapore, its only Asian stop, after it kicked off at London’s Tate Modern in 2019, then toured Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Beyond illuminating Paik’s artistic legacy that impacted visual culture and generations of artists today, Nam June Paik: The Future Is Now also compels visitors to reflect on their own relationship with technology, as well as its effects and repercussions on society,” says Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore.
“There are novel and multi-sensory experiences for everyone to participate in – numerous chances for all to nurture a deeper interest in art and appreciate its fascinating intersections with technology, nature, philosophy, even science. Through this exhibition, we hope to continue inspiring a broad range of audiences with art’s numerous exciting possibilities – which Paik helped to unravel throughout his career.”– Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore
Running from 10th December 2021 to 27th March 2022, Nam June Paik: The Future Is Now not only charts Paik’s artistic journey and milestones, but also aims to expand on the way we reflect on the way we think of art from a Southeast Asian perspective. “Paik responded to technology as it developed, and had a leading role in bridging the gap between art and tech,” says lead curator Dr June Yap. “It is this innovative spirit that led to groundbreaking work that spans nature and music, science and philosophy. His collaborative practice led him to be so influential in avant-garde movements, helped spread radical aesthetics, and was prescient of the modern media landscape, where his legacy has such a lasting impact even today. “
The exhibition is one of the Gallery’s biggest ones yet, spanning 11 sections across multiple floors and gallery spaces. Roughly arranged in chronological order, the exhibition begins with the work One Candle (Candle TV), where a lit candle melts in real time, housed within an empty television frame. The work is significant in that it reflects the idea of constant change, as well as Paik’s lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, and the related concepts of repetition, contemplation and immediacy. In a way, the work also represents how television and tech had the power to broadcast such cultural thoughts and concepts from across the world, connecting us in spite of our distance.
Other pieces in this section also contain items gleaned from his studio, and collected in a single display case, represent Paik’s continued interest in spirituality, alongside a keen knack for the usefulness of play, the reframing of performance, the possibilities of transcending cultural differences, and the future of technologies.
Moving on, the next section explores Paik’s foray into the electronic medium, where as a young artist, he had his first solo exhibition, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, was held at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, West Germany, in March 1963. Heavily influenced by avant garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, Paik, who was trained as a pianist, took these new ideas in music, and applied them to his art through experimentation.
Paik found the art and beauty even in ‘malfunctioning’ objects. When a TV set was damaged during transportation, it left a glitch – a single horizontal line running across it. Working with this instability and considering its creative possibility, Paik turned it on its side, and Zen For TV was born. Other objects in this section also showcase Paik’s penchant for participatory art, where visitors can physically interact and evoke change onscreen, again tapping into the wonder and mystery of electronics at the time.
Still on the theme of music, Paik even created avant garde ‘compositions’ that were so epic, they were nigh impossible to turn into a reality. Influenced by John Cage, for Paik, time was a framework which he could redefine and stretch within his art. This can be seen in works such as Sinfonie For 20 Rooms, a ‘musical score’ intended for a series of connected rooms where a variety of sounds would be produced at the same time. Visitors would wander between these rooms, as they listened and played various instruments, and included details on olfactory, visual and auditory components to be included.
This radicalisation of music also extended to works like Symphony No.5, themed around the concept of boredom. Here, Paik composes an instructional ‘score’ for a million years, reflecting on ideas of repetition and detailing how one should spend their time, prompting followers to listen to music and get in touch with their senses.
Paik happened to also take a keen interest in robots, and even created his own robot back in the day, coming up with unusual, whimsical designs that heralded the future of these mechanical friends. Robots for him, represented technology that was more approachable and less intimidating. Paik’s robots were often crafted out of working TVs, giving them a personality through television displays of friends and historical figures.
Cobbled together to appear humanoid, the collection at the Gallery also features an entire family of robots, affectionately titled Grandfather and Grandmother (others in the series include Father, Mother, Aunt and Uncle), and suggests that robots would one day be a part of our own family.
Being the experimental artist he was, naturally, Paik was inclined towards crafting work that would attempt to play and warp with the ordinary. In 1969, as artist-in-residence at the Boston TV station WGBH-TV, Paik built an analogue “video synthesizer” in collaboration with Shuya Abe, and embarked on image manipulation, along with electronic arts, through distortion, colourising and superimposing video images.
Fusing programming with art, works on display include a screen where a single pixel wanders across a screen using the Fortran language, while a digital crown hovers, almost three-dimensional on another. It often felt almost like a precursor to modern day AI. On the other hand, Paik also displayed his love for pop culture – an interactive video allows visitors to play a selection of songs from The Beatles’ back catalog, while a ‘universal’ music video of Beatles footage plays, seemingly matching every song.
These experiments would only go on to become increasingly colourful and bold, as he began to experiment with TV sets and other audio-visual equipment in the early 1960s, such as distorting the images on screen with magnets, and later created live video feedback systems using CCTV cameras. In Three Camera Participation/Participation TV, visitors can try this out for themselves and split their silhouette into primary colours on a screen, and allow them to recognise the power they held with each device, giving them the means to produce art in their image.
In 1961, Paik met George Maciunas, the founder of the experimental community of artists Fluxus, and was immediately recruited as a member, participating in Fluxus performances in Europe. The ideas of Fluxus suited the undefined, playful and boundary-crossing character of Paik’s work, and created the entry points and connections between countries that would lead him to future collaborators.
In essence, Fluxus sought to eradicate the boundaries between high and low culture, rejecting the elitism of commodity culture, and remove the distinction between artist as active producer and viewer as passive consumer. So much of the work created was performative, radical and participatory, often bewildering but always designed to provoke a response. This section also charts Paik’s inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, exploring tenets of the Neo-Dada movement, and participating in crafting and curating ‘found art’ works.
Perhaps one of Paik’s most renowned and frequent collaborators was the cellist Charlotte Moorman, working together for almost 30 years in creating energetic live performances. Not only did they share a common interest in avant-garde music; both artists also believed that sexuality was unjustly excluded from classical music, and many of their performances involved Moorman playing the cello in various stages of undress.
This sexual liberation coincided perfectly with the advent of television for mass consumption, and as with his other work, Paik incorporated ideas of broadcast and actual television sets into his performances with Moorman. The most famous of these might be the TV Cello, where the plucking of the strings would translate into optical signals modifying the images on the screens when Moorman played.
Even having witnessed the Cold War arms race, Paik continued to believe in the power of technology to be used for good, to connect rather than destroy. As broadcast television became increasingly mainstream and accessible, Paik took advantage of its prevalence to distribute art and enable live collaborations across geographical boundaries.
On display at the Gallery are several performance pieces that were broadcast on television, along with video works such as Bye Bye Kipling and Good Morning Mr Orwell. Dubbed as ‘international satellite installations’, both works are inherently hopeful in their view of technology; Bye Bye Kipling plays on Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Ballad of East and West, and showcases how television unites both Eastern and Western ideals and culture, despite Kipling’s claims that ‘never the twain shall meet’. Good Morning Mr Orwell is a rebuttal to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four, and played on New Year’s Day 1984, showcasing the power of broadcast television to bring culture and art to people from the comfort of their homes – virtually unthinkable at the time.
Towards the end of the exhibition, the Gallery pays tribute to Paik’s collaborators, an inseparable part of his life and career, maintaining many deep friendships and lasting working relationships with these figures now regarded as artistic forerunners in contemporary art history such as Charlotte Moorman, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. This comes to be represented by Paik’s John Cage II Robot, inspired by the avant garde musician, and carrying a basket of memorabilia associated with Cage.
In the final section of the special galleries, the exhibition reflects on Paik’s relationship with Asia and spirituality, and his lifelong questioning of the relationship of humanity with nature, the scientific and the spiritual, and between Eastern and Western cultures. Of these, the recurring work TV Buddha was a standout, as a Buddha statue gazes into a vintage television screen, reflecting its own image back at it via CCTV camera. Perhaps it reflects our new religion of television and finding faith in screens; perhaps it instead reflects how technology is the key to enlightenment.
Appropriately, this comes full circle, much like the endless cycle of life. But where we began with a single candle in a TV, the special galleries end instead on One Candle (Candle Projection) where the image of a single candle flame has been split. The lines between the real and irreal have been blurred, and the idea of eternity becomes possible, as the flame is no longer subject to the rules of time, undying as it remains projected, multiplied on the walls around us for as long as the machinery lasts.
But that’s not all. Head to the Gallery’s Basement Concourse, and you’ll find three large scale works by Paik. The first of these is his iconic TV Garden, where you’ll find television sets ‘growing’ amidst actual plants. Here, Paik posits that technology, despite being man-made, can and should co-exist alongside the natural world, and as his Buddhist beliefs hold, that everything is interdependent. The sounds and scenes are varied and seemingly random, capturing the overwhelming mass media content screens had become inundated with at the time.
The remaining two works harken back to work Paik created for the 1993 Venice Biennale, representing Germany. The first of these is Anonymous Crimean Tatar who Saved Life of Joseph Beuys – Not yet Thanked by German Folks. Created for the German Pavilion’s exhibition Marco Polo at the 45th Venice Biennale, the massive humanoid sculpture seems to herald the coming of a new culture, with its futuristic body composed of cathode ray tubes and a face illuminated by the glow of two ocular headlights, the robot-like sculpture is larger than life.
The title makes reference to German artist and Paik’s friend Joseph Beuys who had claimed to have been rescued by a group of Tatars after his plane crashed in the Crimea. Although later proven untrue, the story fuelled Beuys’ personal mythology and ended up greatly influencing Paik.
Finally, receiving an entire room of its own to display is Paik’s Sistine Chapel, which was also last displayed in the 1993 Venice Biennale. Referencing the iconic work that Michelangelo did in the titular Roman chapel, Sistine Chapel replaces those divine paintings with an overload of images projected on the ceilings and walls, showcasing scenes from history, avant garde music playing the the background, and rapidly shifting from one image to another. This is the electronic super high way Paik envisioned, the radical change that would one day take the world by storm, where biblical figures have been replaced by pop stars, a frenzy of media and a spectacle to behold.
“Paik was always thinking ahead into the future and how all this tech would affect our social relations, and how we might relate to tech,” says Dr June Yap. “For Paik, technology would never be in isolation, and in his imagined electronic super highway, satellites, telephones and other technology would all be connected. All that has happened, and through the sheer breadth of his work, what remains is his spirit of curiosity and optimism for these new mediums, and how he brought all that out through his practice and collaborations.”
Nam June Paik: The Future is Now runs from 10th December 2021 to 27th March 2022 at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, visit namjunepaik.sg.