Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik’s multipart show “Electronic Super Highway,” which originated at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art and travels to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts late this month, addresses how our everyday has been transformed by technologies of communication. In Paik’s cyberville, craggy hedges composed of discarded monitors, cameras, antennae, and cassette tapes border houses, public buildings, towers, billboards, and trees. It’s a daffy Land of Oz, only the Wizard isn’t lurking behind the scenery, he’s chattering and blinking from every possible screen. While the installation at times resembles an oversized Fisher Price town (we can meet the traffic cop, sit in the little schoolhouse, visit the post office), each whirling monitor offers a vision of the future.

Paradoxically, Paik’s futuristic building blocks are vintage television sets—artifacts from the medium’s Golden Age. But it’s not only the television monitors that speak of the past. Peopled with references to old colleagues, Paik’s installation also maps his personal history. Paik’s early, robotlike homages to Charlotte Moorman and John Cage stand at the entrance. Unlike 18th-century mechanomorphs which attempted to conceal the mechanisms that animated them, the television screens in Paik’s robots reveal the technologies through which we perceive the world: the videos of the past and the digital imagery of the future are edited and reformulated to form a hybrid “reality.” Paik’s Photosynthesis, 1993—a kind of family tree—sprouts branches from which twirl images of Merce Cunningham and Joseph Beuys as well as Moorman and Cage. In comic but ominous contrast to the potentially creative use of communication technologies, he introduces Couch Potato, 1994, a robot clamped to a La-Z-Boy wired to a fax machine.

Two dazzling installations bracket the exhibition. While the “Cybertown” half is filled with sentimental paraphernalia such as a luggage-laden van equipped with a satellite dish that recalls Paik’s tours of the United States in the ’60s, and an Asian peddler’s cart overflowing with videos and CD-Roms, a huge video billboard called Route 66, 1994, dominates the airwaves. This multimonitor grid displays endless footage of warped roadways, spiraling vortices, and portraits of U.S. presidents. Finally, in a separate room, clusters of suspended monitors punctuate the darkness, the galactic patterns they form reminding us how far we’ve come since Frank Baum, Ozzie and Harriet, and even Paik’s own “family tree.” Here Paik strives to capture the range of the global information network, suggesting that in the next millennium the dome of heaven will be composed of bright screens floating above home offices, think tanks, and corporate headquarters.

Joan Seeman Robinson