Nam June Paik may be the father of video art, but his modern-day descendents don’t bear much of a family resemblance. The globetrotting Korean-American artist’s output of abused electronic devices, anarchic musical performances, and goopy abstract psychedelia from the ’60s and early ’70s seems pretty far removed from the slick, single-channel videos haunting galleries, fairs, and museums nowadays.
Granted, much of Paik’s technology is way past its sell-by date. Visitors to “Global Visionary,” the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new Paik retrospective, will encounter a darkened room full of flickering cathode-ray tubes, waveform generators, and production values straight from the golden age of public-access cable. While the two wall-filling behemoth monitor grids in the show, “Megatron/Matrix” (1995) and “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” (1995), at least appear to have lumbered out of the early MTV era, much of the rest of the work looks much older than its actual vintage: If these distressed, clunky assemblages didn’t incorporate video monitors, one might think they were pre-World War II Dada or Constructivist artifacts.
But the differences between contemporary video art and Paik’s electronic experiments aren’t just in the hardware. These days, video art often corresponds to our expectations for theater, cinema, or photography—narrative drama is included or implied. Fugitive, durational performance pieces are transformed by video into professionally edited, museum-ready commodities. Generally, the video monitor itself is beside the point. Paik, however, was obsessed with the TV as a piece of home furnishing to be interrogated, abused, and transformed. He began his career as an experimental musician and neo-Dadaist; his work, accordingly, reflects a desire to turn televisions into musical instruments or prosthetic extensions of the body. “Television has been attacking us all our lives,” Paik once said. “Now we can attack it back.”
Paik studied avant-garde music in the late 1950s and eventually fell in with composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who championed the use of electronics and odd forms of graphic notation that invited chance and randomness into performances. In 1961, Paik met Lithuanian-American iconoclast George Maciunas and joined his Fluxus anti-art movement. Paik’s subsequent Fluxus performances typically involved sonic mayhem—in his 1962 piece, “One for Violin Solo,” the artist spent a full five minutes ever-so-slowly raising a violin over his head, then abruptly smashed it to bits in front of him. A relic from another early show, “Prepared Piano” (1962–1963), demonstrates Paik’s penchant for altering an instrument’s sound via small motors, nails, and other objects clotting its innards.
When he began turning his attention to TV sets, Paik kept on manipulating and mangling. In 1963, one of Paik’s televisions had been damaged during transport; the screen image had been reduced to a single horizontal white line. Paik flipped the TV on its side and called it “Zen for TV.” His 1965 piece, “Magnet TV,” consists of a large horseshoe magnet stuck to the top of a weather-beaten 17-inch black-and-white television. The magnet warps the screen image, turning it into a series of ghostly, twisting planes of light. In the original version, viewers could move the magnet and create an infinite variety of patterns—transforming a passive receiver into a generator of unexpected stimulation.
Paik’s collaborations in the late ’60s with Julliard-trained cellist Charlotte Moorman bridged the gap between his early music and his TV sculptures. “TV Cello” (1971) is a series of three stacked Plexiglas boxes, each containing a video tube. In concert, Moorman would draw her bow across the four slack strings crudely lashed across the boxes, producing sounds and triggering video footage. Paik also fashioned a “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969), a vinyl and plexi garment that strategically fastened two small tubes in front of Moorman’s bare breasts. Playful, sexual, and crude, these pieces fulfilled Paik’s vision of television not as a tool for consumption, but an expressive medium to be bent to our visions and desires for living with technology in the future.
In his later works, Paik allowed mass media into his tortured abstract videoscapes, acknowledging how “the information super-highway”—a term he coined—was changing everything. “Megatron/Matrix” includes footage of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics; simple, brightly colored computer animations; and topless women lounging with snakes and cats. But even as Paik embraced popular culture, he continued to include snippets of John Cage and Merce Cunningham performing music and dance, scores from a variety of sources, and sped-up, rapid-fire edits signaling a sense of time unique to music.
“Global Visionary” offers just enough of Paik’s work to give a sense of the artist’s joie de vivre and bizarre futurist tendencies—but not much more. Really, this show needs some breathing room. It’s basically one large gallery crammed with 67 Paik works, spanning six decades, along with an interactive display of items from the Nam June Paik archive, a collection of papers, objects, and ephemera from Paik’s studio practice that SAAM maintains.
Sure, there’s room enough for some large show-stoppers—like “TV Garden” (1974/2000), a dense bed of live plants in which dozens of TV monitors are nestled. But one of the two wall-filling video pieces, “Electronic Superhighway,” is actually tucked away down the hall and around the corner. Nine different audio and video pieces—roughly three and a half hours of material—are being screened back-to-back, throughout the day, in a single small projection space at one end of the main room. Surely more space and more projectors could’ve been devoted to this enterprise.
The show gives a good sense of Paik’s Fluxus milieu and provides touching glimpses of his attempts to come to grips with a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body in 1996. But it doesn’t offer much perspective on how Paik fits in the pantheon, or a coherent vision of how his work has shaped succeeding generations. Both the show layout and curator John Hanhardt’s catalog essay jump backward and forward in time and space, and objects in the show are not ordered chronologically, or even by type.
Admittedly, Paik invited this sort of confusion. Many pieces are tagged with two dates—one marking the original presentation, a second marking reconfiguration for a later show. Paik also drew upon familiar scores, figures, and images again and again: Merce Cunningham dances with electronic surrogates in “Merce by Merce by Paik” (1975/78), and across the 15 small screens that compose the large robot-like sculpture, “Merce/Digital” (1988). Clearly Paik thought all of his pieces were tied together into one total artwork. One wishes “Global Visionary” might have tried to untangle some of the knots.
The display for the archive objects is beautifully designed. Unfortunately, the contents appear to have wandered in from a history museum—or, worse, from the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Charming car, robot, and martial arts toys are shown with vintage radios and TV sets with bizarre, colorful chassis—as well as busts of Beethoven, Venus de Milo, and Elvis. The Nam June Paik archive may be an important resource for understanding the man and his oeuvre, but in this configuration, it makes him look like a zany hoarder.
Ultimately, this show reveals Paik as a restless composer who envisioned TV as an unlikely new instrument on which to perform. Younger video artists may not exactly have followed Paik’s lead, but they are indebted to him for opening the door. Nam June Paik often referred to himself as “[the] world’s most famous bad pianist.” “Global Visionary” isn’t exactly the best vehicle for reviving and extending Paik’s fame—but it leaves us hungry for a few more damaged melodies.