New York

“The Worlds Of Nam June Paik”

TO HOW MANY OF US is it given to attend the birth of a medium and to witness its institutionalization as—what else?—an “art form”? In the early ’60s, anyone who held in his or her hands a brown, flexible, two-inch-wide piece of videotape on which information was electronically coded had to have a sense of the miraculous. Play it back: There was the moving image shot a moment before—flat, factual, fibrillating, lightstruck. By the late ’60s, the portapak camera had put the means of production (then a vaguely Marxist phrase) in the hands of media artists working across the broad band from the documentary to the experimental. “Public Access” was not so much a slogan as the war cry of a marginal (and at the time despised) community insisting on being seen and heard. From its incubation in the counterculture, video had a radical, idealistic program. The common enemy? The three network monoliths, which had stolen the public airways, limited access, and betrayed the public (all true).

When the documentary wing, John Reilly and Rudy Stearn’s Global Village (founded in 1969), for example, declared the world its subject, and Nam June Paik (in 1965) pronounced that the video camera would replace the paintbrush—that it was in fact the paintbrush of the future—many art-world fauna dismissed them as intoxicated utopians. For video art, which was considered marginal, a short life was predicted—a little like that of rap, which was also supposed to be short but instead became nasty, brutish, and long. The truth of these pioneers has now marched on—although painting, the Lazarus medium, will survive an atomic holocaust. The electronic medium, neutral as water, became, like sculpture and installation, a noun: Video. Over thirty years, it has unfurled its phrases as if scheduled by Wölfflin.

Video’s spunky progression is unthinkable without its most durable pioneer, Nam June Paik, whose global migrations from Korea and Europe to the continent of John Cage have an almost religious inevitability. Thirty-five years ago, you could see him at the Galeria Bonino in Manhattan translating the sedate electrons of a broadcast sitcom into swerving linear conundrums by manipulating a magnet on top of a TV set. Above the magnet was the irresistible Paik smile, which still seems to hover over all his work (he gracefully bears the burden of being universally liked). Under the clean museum and gallery culture of Pop and Minimal, the inspired and somewhat scruffy pan-cultural world of Fluxus was bubbling away, and where Fluxus was, there was Paik, with programs and performances—musical, verbal, pantomimic—a charming futurist with an eye for memorable events (Charlotte Moorman performing on Paik’s electronic cello; Moorman wearing his state-of-the-art TV bra, a pole away from the article Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russell’s cantilevered assets). All was driven by an extravagant Whitmania: Gulp down the world, reshuffle it electronically, and disgorge it in a pride of monitors. Since new art ideas usually arrive accompanied by heavy breathing, it was wonderful that Paik’s program was without exception performed with a joy so rare as to be almost a new medium in itself.

Some of Paik’s early work, which showed the TV set no mercy, displayed an epigrammatic wit. He designed a chair with a TV seat (TV Chair, 1968) that conjugates verbally (ass-seat, ass-set, ass-sit). He replaced the cathode tube with an empty fishbowl, then a solitary lighted candle. In a gesture that became famous, a sculptured Buddha contemplates his image on the screen in real time. Another signature act (reversing the aquarium scene in Orson Welles’s Lady from Shanghai) put TV sets behind aquariums in which the peregrinations of miniature fish inscribed the activity on the screen. Fish float through Paik’s oeuvre (an image of his lack of gravitas?) and preface various screens, one of which shows, in a brilliant conceit, Merce Cunningham dancing (floating?) with his computerized echo. And since Paik’s genius is additive, this unit is replicated around the Guggenheim’s ramp in a bracelet of monitors: redundancy as pleasurable excess.

John Hanhardt’s dazzling installation is, with Bill Judson’s “American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove” at the Carnegie in 1988, video’s summa of display. Jacob’s Ladder, 2000, a zigzag of laser light, shivers through a six-story waterfall (call John Portman); giant double-faced screens mount the outside of the ramps, furiously synthesizing scattershot content in which culture heroes (Allen Ginsberg, Merce again) make soundless cameo appearances. From the top ramp, Wright’s spinning well has offered some unforgettable floorworks, such as Carl Andre’s installation in 1970—and does so again. One hundred face-up monitors huddled randomly on the floor overflow with images returning your gaze. The result is breathtaking spectacle—and fun.

Paik’s genial futurism always amounted to public relations for the coming media immersion, which is now everyone’s lot. His amiable polemics were and are disarming. His optimism is a version of innocence, his certainty maybe that of a sophisticated primitive, very different from the testing propositions of such artists as Dan Graham and the early Peter Campus, who culled process and found it darker. Hanhardt’s catalogue, which makes a case for an intellectual underpinning for Paik’s work, is an indispensable document. It includes a history of experimental film, obscured until recently by video’s ubiquity. Experimental filmmakers deeply resented video. (When Stan Brakhage finally capitulated by making his first video, a shock wave went out through the film community.) Experimental film was and is often backbreaking work. Video was too easy; but in time it got much harder—and more expensive, though the Rockefeller Foundation, through Howard Fine, generously relieved the fiscal distress.

The most interesting room is the gallery off the top ramp, where Paik’s early work and thinking are documented. There, lying in state among other exhibits, is a famous fossil, the 1969 Paik-Abe synthesizer, experimental video’s Univac, attended in a photograph by Paik and Fred Barzyk, the visionary enabler of early video, at his Boston TV lab. To look down the ramp to the lily pond of monitors below is to travel in a glance the distance video has come.