Nam June Paik at Tate Modern (2019)

Nam June Paik (1932-2006) is for me the kind of artist who’s work makes you revaluate the terms and conditions of originality, having had a significant influence upon the course of contemporary art. Initiating new lines of enquiry and using pioneering emergent technologies in interesting, unexpected ways. As the ‘father of video art’, I’d suggest that he is probably not as well known outside of creative circles as should be the case. Hopefully this timely exhibition at Tate Modern will go some way to revealing just how significant a figure he was to a wider audience.

During the artist’s life, a cultural flourishing happened as the result of postwar consumer society becoming increasingly interconnected and technologically advanced. Personal wealth grew and greater freedoms beckoned. It was a period of great change and experimentation in the fine arts, to which Nam June Paik made significant contributions.

Nam (in the Korean tradition of family name first) had a fairly long career, living well into the digital age. He coined the term ‘Electronic Super Highway’ long before it was to make sense to most people. Although he died over a decade ago, Nam saw his own predictions about that malliable substance which is today’s ever shifting, ever slippery global telemedia, become the basis for our reality. That endless repetition of surface gloss, with scant narrative or discernable (useful) meaning, leaching into our environment, surrounding us to the extent that we often fail even to notice.

The Exhibition

A variety of the artist’s activities can be seen in this comprehensive, broadly chronological exhibition. Through 12 rooms, you can experience more than 200 artworks and artifacts. These include installations, videos, photographs, films and other objects. Plus many items documenting or relating to his creative parctice, activism and collaborations.

The first part of the show, naturally, examines the artist’s early works. Many of these explore and exploit inherent, unintended characteristics; thrown up by looking at things like record players, TVs and video with fresh eyes. Seeing ways to use them other than that for which they were originally intended. Finding within them new possibilities and subverting their original uses. Implicit in this is the idea that technologies are not just passive media, but can instead be used as active creative tools.

‘Foot Switch Experiment’ is from 1963 and originally shown in his first exhibition in Germany. It comprises a television which allows the viewer to control the shape of the picture, using a pedal that alters it using a magnetic field.

Several other works use a similar method of distortion, but the one that really got to the heart of the matter, speaking volumes about the true nature of the medium, is ‘Nixon’ from 1965 (reconstructed 2002). Here two television sets next to each other show identical footage of ‘Tricky Dickie’ Nixon being Nixon; each cathode ray tube having attached to it’s front magnetic coils, which alternately alter the image of the late President. Thus at once dramatically revealing the truth about a medium that is so easily altered and coerced; suggesting that all is not what you see. Of course, many people today will have little idea about just how controversial a figure Nixon was in his time, but the point is still clear. You can’t take as truth anything pumped out on the box. There is simultaneously nothing and everything unique about the content of waves in space saying the same thing.

We see one television on a plinth, which is gutted, save for a single lighted candle in place of the works and screen. The shell of the thing is thin and fragile, framing an empty space. We watch the candle on ‘Candle TV’ with renewed interest.

Later in the show, the motif of the candle reappears in a number of video projections. A cctv camera films a real candle and projects the live image large, it’s flickering appearance altered by movements in the air caused by passer’s by. However, because the light is spilt into red, green and blue- which are the basic components of a video image- it makes visible on the wall just how that technology creates the illusion of substance. How we tend to accept the reconstituted image as real, even when we know it isn’t. As the candle changes and these changes are reproduced, they also emphasise the Buddhist belief in continual change and the necessity to accept it. How everything is interconnected. Nam’s bringing together technology with the principles of Zen were central to his artistic philosophy.

Another interesting work in the early part of the exhibition is called ‘TV Buddha’ from 1974. A statue of the Buddha in repose is sat watching a closed loop television image of itself, filmed by a tv camera, placed behind the tv. However things can interfere with the closed ‘loop’. Anyone walking behind the figure of the Buddha affects the image on the screen.

Large Scale Video Works

Nam made work that eyed the future, such as ‘TV Garden’ (1974), which one encounters early on in the exhibition. Across the gallery floor we see a series of upturned tvs, set within lush plant life. The televisions flicker in sync, looped with the the artist’s film ‘Global Groove’ (1973). Its imagery drawn from western and non western sources, traditional and modern fragments of culture.

To these eyes the work seems pretty prescient. Much of its frenetic pace and acid palette have been a staple part of a certain kind of media for years, packed with pureed concentrated advertising.

As technology becomes more and more embedded into our ‘natural’ environment and indeed our bodies; any meaningful distinction between the two is harder to define. And indeed how is it we distinguish ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture? We see Alan Ginsberg and Japanese tv commercials, hear Beethoven and traditional musics. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charlotte Moorman…

Yet Nam has created a fusion here which proposes that there isn’t necessarily a conflict between all these diverse sources. Indeed the editing at New York’s experimental ‘TV Lab’ produced a successful tapestry of fragmented imagery and sounds; reflecting the time in which it was made. We cannot help but measure it against our own (less sophisticated some might say) global media. Presumably the artist’s eye still imposes order, because one gets the impression these images are coordinated, not random. Although perhaps they are?

One final point about ‘Global Groove’. Its pace and texture most certainly had an effect on the emergent form of the pop video. Something clear if you watch those produced in early eighties. Indeed the ‘Satellite Videos’, which include many key figures who came to define the cultural landscape of the 1980s, helped to shape the aesthetic of MTV and the video age.

‘Sistine Chapel’ is a dazzling, multi layered and large scale video work, that was a significant technical achievement when entered for the 1993 Venice Biennale. We see it here, recreated in a space towards the latter part of the exhibition. Made in collaboration with the German artist Hans Haacke and based upon the travels of Marco Polo; pictures of contemporary rock icons and friends of the artist interchange at speed with older and less familiar eastern imagery. Resulting in interesting cultural associations being made in the minds of the viewers, who take the time to immerse themselves fully in the work.

Both ‘Global Groove’ and ‘Sistine Chapel’ are the embodiment of the idea of the ‘Electronic Super Highway’. The early internet envisioned in pictures and sound.

Artifacts and Fluxus

There are a number of Nam’s idiosyncratic applications of technology on display and they are fascinating. For the sake of argument, I’ll call them ‘artifacts’. The most striking probably being ‘TV Bra’ (1969); designed to be used by Nam’s longtime collaborator, the cellist Charlotte¬†Moorman in ‘Living Sculpture’. One room in the show is devoted entirely to their experiments in art, music and the poetic telling of stories. Tales that are put down like a patchwork on fabric. Multi layered and dynamic video works. Fast paced and very complex digital projections. For example ‘Guadalcanal Requiem’.

We also see evidence of his work with Fluxus, that most radical and experimental of movements. Nam was good friends with its founder George Maciunas; joining and participating in the group from 1962 and making a great contribution to it’s subsequent development. One of the rooms is dedicated to these activities.

There is a 1985 work (produced on board) connecting a number of disparate events that took place on July 20th. The landing of Apollo 11 and the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler among others. This was also the birth day of Nam June Paik. The connections made are not just past tense either; we see the date of 2168AD too. Nor are they straightforward, as the cryptic and uncertain question marks indicating unspecified dates show.

Pioneer in Video and Audio

Nam is the author of the first known artwork on video tape; recorded in 1965 using very early (and cumbersome) equipment that was just about portable. Ushering in an age of experimentation that continues pretty much to this day. As the one and only Vic Reeves recently observed (in his rather good show on the history of video art ‘Kill Your TV’): Nam (through the implications of what he was doing all those years ago) predicted our times, the internet obviously and even YouTube.

Nam’s early experiments with televisions stripped away the mystique which up to that point had surrounded the medium. His DIY ethos chimed with the times. A whole generation of artists embraced the malleable nature of tape; both video and audio. To paraphrase Brian Eno from some years later (when talking on KBFA about the history of recorded sound); he observed how magnetic tape took a temporal event and turned it into a special event. Plasticised it. Instead of being something lost in time, what was recorded became something that could be manipulated in the hands of the artist; rearranged, processed and played back in a new form as something unique. Never having previously existed (in time) yet when played back, becoming an event in time.

There are a few works on show that are variants on the theme of ‘Random Access’. Using tape as an extension of collage, they examine in particularly interesting ways different aspects of the ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are several pieces on show that consist of recorded tape pasted onto old musical scores (such as Random Access 6th Century A.D.’ 1978 and ‘Random Access for Audio Tape with Original Score ‘String Quartet’ 1957/78), making conceptual associations across time and space.

One work from 1963 (recreated 2000) consists of recording tape pasted in strips onto the wall, with a tape head ‘reader’ that the viewer uses to ‘read’ (and then presumably hear) the content stored on the tape. Even though I couldn’t get it to work, it was a great idea.

A recurrent theme in Nam’s work is the human relationship to technology. We see his intricate mechanical figures; robots with a ‘human’ face, designed to be friendly and easy to interact with. Multiple TVs inside them animate and flicker. Limbs slowly move. I’d imagine they evoke a response in many people today somewhere between cute and retro, so continue to be successful in presenting a friendly faced machine. Having said that, in this setting they appear a little worse for wear. The signs of ageing detracting a tad from what must have been quite a striking original ‘first impression’. ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ are both from 1986, but look older.

Sound and Music

Nam’s ideas have also permeated the worlds of recorded sound, performance art and all kinds of experimental electronic media. He studied the history of Classical Music in Tokyo and moved to Germany in 1956. Like Japan, where he spent his formative years, Germany was still recovering from the desolation and trauma of war. All the same, the country became a crucible for new ideas about art, music and experimentation in the generation of electronic sounds. Immersing himself in cultural life, meeting with Karlheinz Stockhousen and working for the radio station WDR had a great influence on the progression of Nam’s working methods. He also attended the Darmstadt International Summer School Course for New Music in 1958 with John Cage (we see a varient of ‘Prepared Piano’ in the show). Another artist, who’s expanded ideas about art were to have a long lasting effect on Nam was Joseph Beuys. Their collaborations also get a room.

“The one good fortune of my life was that I got to know John Cage while he was considered more a gadfly than a guru and Joseph Beuys when he was an eccentric hermit in Dusseldorf”

Nam June Paik 1990

In Conclusion

Like the best shows, ‘Nam June Paik’ offers the uninitiated viewer a way in. A means to connect all of the different themes and threads together.

Also, the range of different works on display- from the most technically sophisticated to those on a piece of paper- exhibit a level of complexity that require the viewer to spend time engaging with them. I know I’ve said something similar before, but this would be worthwhile time.

Because in our age of fragmented, dissipated reality, where any truth is stifled or distorted amid a tide of misinformation and fake news, Nam’s insights into the nature of the media and its deconstruction are more relevant than ever. As he himself once said “the history of the world says that we don’t win the games, but we change the rules of the game”.

The following pictures are a small selection and all taken by myself at the exhibition…

‘Nam June Paik’ is on show at Tate Modern until Febuary 2020.

(C) Gideon Hall 2019