Chance Encounters

New York

Left: Jonas Mekas with Guggenheim curator and event host John G. Hanhardt. Right: Ken Paik Hakuta with Thomas Krens.

In a cab en route to Wednesday evening’s “Nam June Paik: A Memorial Tribute” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, my companion and I were momentarily surrounded by a chanting crowd of striking carpenters. The scenario had a performance-like quality that the late video-art pioneer and Fluxus member might have appreciated. Arriving a few minutes late to the event itself, we entered the museum’s rotunda as some old television news footage about a public appearance made by Paik’s Robot K-456, 1964, on the occasion of Paik’s 1982 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art was being screened. The still-bizarre sight of the eccentric mechanism careening down Madison Avenue and eventually colliding with a moving car transfixed the crowd, which snaked up Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral to the third floor.

The clip over, Guggenheim film and media curator John G. Hanhardt introduced director Thomas Krens. Characterizing the attendance record set by Paik’s Guggenheim retrospective in 2000 as “eloquent testimony to his prescience,” Krens then handed over, via Hanhardt, to Paik’s nephew and studio manager Ken Paik Hakuta. After identifying a few special guests—including former Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman—Hakuta commented on Paik’s curious ability to make new friends—even after his death. After a round of applause for Merce Cunningham (present but not speaking), and a clip from his collaboration with Paik, the artist’s widow, Shigeko Kubota, took the rostrum. Recalling her husband’s plans for a Cage centennial concert, she urged those assembled to return to the museum in 2012, ending, simply, “I miss you Nam June Paik.” Next, Shuya Abe, who collaborated with Paik on his video synthesizer as well as on Robot K-456, recalled his friend with obvious affection, explaining his fondness for Zen-like injunctions that might take him a year to fully understand, “two months at the fastest.”

Left: Ken Paik Hakuta and Shuya Abe, coinventor of the video synthesizer. Right: Nam June Paik's wife, artist Shigeko Kubota.

After a brief extract from Global Groove, a 1973 piece made with the synthesizer featuring Allen Ginsberg chanting through a maelstrom of trippy visual effects, the mic was passed to Jonas Mekas, who brought the house down with a wry account of Paik’s visit to the White House in 2000. Apparently, Paik, having recently suffered a stroke, attended in a wheelchair but insisted on standing to greet President Clinton. No sooner had he done so than his pants fell down, in what Mekas considered a planned performance that was characteristically “outrageous yet also innocent, and right to the point.” Curator Russell Connor had his own store of Paik anecdotes, remembering the artist’s mischievous promise: “When videophones become popular, I will start a topless answering service.” Kunsthalle Bremen director Wulf Herzogenrath then showed a number of images including several of a cello performance by Chalotte Moorman in which the musician wore Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture, and discussed other of Paik’s projects in Germany, including his collaborative work with Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Paik first went to Germany in 1956 to study music history at the University of Munich.) New Museum director Lisa Phillips recalled her first meeting with Paik, in 1984. “He completely derailed my belief that the notion of genius was just a cultural construction,” she said, a tinge of emotion seeping into her voice. “Every time I talked to him, I left knowing he was a genius.”

Left: Yoko Ono moments before her performance. Right: Shuya Abe.

Returning to the stage to introduce a concluding performance by Yoko Ono, Hakuta shared some childhood memories of his uncle, who apparently directed him to “watch more TV,” destroyed the family piano as part of a 1963 performance in 1963, and advised him, in all seriousness, that he should aspire to own a McDonald’s. Finally, after two helpers in head-to-toe black and ninja masks had carried a large canvas of a vase to the front of the stage and unrolled a canvas bag heavy with ceramic fragments, Ono walked on and took a seat. A soundtrack of birdsong faded out and, after a burst of dissonant song, she announced: “The vase has been broken into 450 pieces. Take one home and promise to think of Nam June.” She took out her knitting (I’m not making this up), and the crowd began to mass around her to claim their (signed) fragments before filtering out into the night.

Michael Wilson

Left: Yoko Ono's assistants. Right: Yoko Ono (Photos: Felix Herzogenrath)