New York

Nam June Paik

Global Village

Nam June Paik’s newest videotape offers the possibility of a completely new trend in entertainment. Shown to a capacity crowd, the audience of devoted fans must have been prepared for anything the master had to offer, from the most outlandishly abstract patternings to full-blown conceptualizing. What they got was an amazingly enjoyable piece of work. Despite all its radical cutting and split-screen effects, They Can’t Lick Stamps in China was funny, enticing and provocative.

Paik used several theatrical premises to introduce themes and gimmicks. His collaborator (and art writer) Gregory Battcock was chief “actor” in the story, providing the plotline: complaining of the cold, he is sent from his New York office to seek sunny refuge aboard a cruise ship. The travelogue premise allowed Paik to intercut scenes from previously made tapes as well as tapes from other artists. Mixing exotic sights and sounds with political overtones, Stamps covers ground from Bombay to Capetown and Hong Kong. Scenes of political ferment, or implied ferment, alternate with purely decorative scenery—a Chinese lychee nut commune, hordes of native black workers, shot after shot of mouth-watering food.

Intercut with the foreign footage, Paik introduced scenes from New York. Again, the split-second transitions occurred only after suitable preparation in preceding scenes. When Battcock and former fellow-passengers reunite in New York to watch home movies of the cruise, they quite legitimately argue the merits of each country’s way of life. A friend’s declaration that the Chinese could not be happy with restricted travel draws an indignant reply from Battcock, along the lines of “Of course they’re happy. What else would they wanna do, fly to New York?” and we cut immediately to scenes of neon depravity, unwholesome nightlife and the ever-present sensuous overload of huge amounts of food.

Such constant motion is the norm in this exceptionally fast paced piece of work. Seldom is the screen restricted to single, real-time images; most often, inserts of a speaker’s face protrude through background scenes, or contrasting events take place side by side. Yet Paik’s structure never staggers, never misses a beat. Elements introduced at leisure are repeated in rapid fire succession; disorienting, comic, surprisingly easy to watch. Handled as a matter-of-fact complaint by professional travelers, the title motif is repeated with unexpected believability. Discussing the lack of glue on Chinese stamps, the tourists enter a verbal free-for-all until the argument reaches the proportions of a classic vaudeville routine, edited in back-to-back repeats.

Paik shows an uncanny ability to mix the ridiculous and the sublime, matching the techniques of his structuring to the content of his absurdist discussions and somber political implications. The audience seemed thoroughly pleased with the piece. Any formalists in the crowd who would have preferred more abstract, pure video movement or colorized effects were silent and not critical of the theatrical content. Paik may have hit on the perfect combination of style and subject; experimental enough to satisfy hard-core art crowds, fascinating enough to capture the average television mentality. This is not meant negatively, but merely to emphasize the direction of innovative videowork toward an arena of greater acceptability by nonelitist audiences. One hopes that Paik will continue to put out uncompromisingly good work that adapts to both.

Deborah Perlberg