Nam June Paik

In the art world, as in intellectual history, most inventions have multiple progenitors. In the field of video art, however, there has always been just one individual who is credited: Nam June Paik. In the ’60s, this Korean-born artist turned the television, totem of hard, material shell and immaterially shimmering screen, into the raw material of an entire movement in art. The Kunsthaus Zurich served as showcase for the rich production of hard- and software from the Paik factory that has accumulated over the past thirty years. It is a monumental retrospective (certainly the largest since the Whitney exhibition of 1982), from TV Chair, 1968–74, through the legendary TV Buddha, 1974—a rotund, priestly figure staring at his live-videotaped face on a rotund TV-set—up to the multi-TV installations, in which Paik constructs as many as a thousand monitors into gigantic, flickering architectural towers and walls. The most elaborate installation in Zurich was the video wall Fin de siècle, 1991, with 131 monitors that showed kaleidoscopically combined sequences from performances by Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, Phillip Glass, Ben Vautier, and others: the cozy home-cinema turned into an expanse of mass-media ornament. On public view for the first time was the 13-part video sculpture My Faust, 1989–91. Each component consisted of a Gothiclike altarpiece of 25 ten-inch monitors, which functioned as a kind of picture membrane. Diverse accessories attached to the housings served as attributes illustrating the theme of the different stations, converging to form a universal way of the cross through civilization, beginning with “Nature” and passing through “Nationalism” to “Education” and “Commerce” all the way to “UHF Autobiography.” This installation seems heightened almost to the point of mannerism.

A retrospective view of Paik’s beginnings was undertaken by the Kunsthalle Basel in an exhibition that augmented the show in Zurich by outlining the biographical stations and, above all, the philosophical and theoretical roots of Paik’s work. While the Zurich exhibition entitled “Video-Space” abounded in seductive fascination with an almost childlike optimism about the electronic visual medium, the “Video-Time” show in Basel obliged the viewer to run a theoretical, workshoplike obstacle course encountering this critical “cultural terrorist.” Here it was made clear that Paik had his real roots in music and—inspired by his intellectual fathers Arnold Schönberg and John Cage—was searching for a visual equivalent to the art of sound and noise. In 1970 he found that he was looking for in the video synthesizer he developed, which allowed him to manipulate and collage colors, forms, and movement sequences from videos and TV programs into musiclike structures.

Paik dedicated the first room to the cellist Charlotte Moorman. Their joint action Opera Sextronique, 1967, in which Moorman performed bare-breasted and which led to both artists’ arrests, belongs among the incunabula of post-war art. Among the most impressive installations was a darkened room with 16 furniture-like TV-housings, Mac and Evers, 1989, dangerously piled up to the ceiling across all four walls. In this nervously twitching intermesh of individual flickering TV-hulls, Paik found an apt metaphor for the Global Village. Overall, both exhibitions demonstrated that Paik is an artist who has created an appropriate, that is to say critical and yet playful, relationship with television, video, and the electronic mass media generally. He knows how to tread the difficult middle ground between cultural-critical negation and creative affirmation.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.