Arts Desk

Rediscovering Paik: A Chat With Smithsonian Curator John G. Hanhardt

Nam June Paik's "Electronic Superhighway"

Given the recent opening of an exhibition of Nam June Paik's work at the National Gallery of Art, as well as the long-term commitment to media art the Smithsonian American Art Museum has made its Watch This! exhibition, I thought now would be a good time to talk with SAAM's senior curator for media arts, John G. Hanhardt, about the Nam June Paik archives. SAAM acquired the archives in 2009 and plans to dedicate an exhibition to them next year. We discussed the institution's commitment to Paik and the history of the moving image, the difficulties of presenting media art, and the upcoming show.

Washington City Paper: Since a personal relationship often springs from a professional relationship, how well did you know Paik?

John Hanhardt: I knew him very well from the early 1970s, and I was privileged to be engaged in his work and to include his work in numerous exhibitions. I traveled with him to Germany where he introduced me to many of his colleagues and friends. I would visit him and his wife, Shigeko [Kubota], in his loft and studio. We were in active personal communication and spent time together. After his stroke I visited him very shortly thereafter in the hospital, and flew down to Miami, frequently, to see him. I spent time with him regularly until the end. A lot of our conversations were about projects, because he was always working on things: whether it was developing a satellite television project, or a video tape, or a sculpture. Some of those projects were discussed because I was involved in them as a curator and some of those things we discussed were because he wanted me to know about them.

WCP: Now that you've been looking through the archives for the past few years, I was curious what you may have learned about Nam June Paik in terms of his work, and about him, that you might not have learned otherwise from your professional and personal relationships with him.

JH: That's an interesting question. As I said, I used to visit him in his studios. When I organized his retrospective at the Whitney in 1982, we pulled a lot of material together. He was an artist that really didn't take care of his papers; they were in piles and in corners. I was aware of a lot of this material. Toward the end of his life he told me many times that he wanted me to organize a new edition of his writings.

From looking at his archives I could see that he was very aware of how he was being viewed and interpreted. He kept clippings, correspondence with curators, museums and galleries. One of the things that keeps coming up is how favorably he was reviewed at that time, by the TV critic of The New York Times, John O'Connor. He appreciated Nam June's work. And Nam June kept clippings of his reviews. John O’Connor passed away a little over a year ago, and his partner put a little show together of Nam June's letters and notes to him! I spoke to Seymour Borofsky and he is donating those papers to the archive. So, the more people that hear about the archive, as a generation passes on, these materials are coming to light and are being brought to the Nam June Paik Archive at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Nam June collected lots of toys, antiques: He was constantly buying things that he could imagine incorporating into his art work. We are also finding a number of audio tapes and video tapes, and the big issue for us is archival preservation and organization because it is a vast trove of material that needs to be organized in order to be really looked at in a meaningful way. And, that's really what's been occupying us is making order out of this. We're close to getting there and it will become the center of a Nam June Paik Media Arts Center where his work can be studied by scholars, artists, and curators. It's a very exciting plan.

And, if you'll allow me to jump around, we have the recently opened Media Art Gallery and the Watch This! exhibition, and American Art is making a real commitment to time-based art, not only to representing Nam June, which they have done spectacularly with the exhibition and preservation of Megatron/Matrix and Super Highway/Continental US, but also with videotapes and installations, as well as contemporary directions in the art of the moving image.

WCP: How many of the pieces currently on view Watch This! are a part of SAAM's collection?

JH: All of them except two, which have been loaned into the show. There's a second Jim Campbell piece that I thought added an extra dimension to his work, and the Bill Viola piece. We had Bill here for a lecture, and we are very much interested in his work, and we have an extended loan to represent him. The gallery itself will change over time; my goal is to add more depth to the collection and to circulate those artists into the gallery as well as the other gallery spaces in the museum.

WCP: One thing that strikes me is that I cannot think of a lot of major galleries that are dedicating this much space to multiple works of the moving image.

JH: There aren't many museums that put work like this together in a single exhibition. There may be  temporary shows but it is the American Art Museum’s sustained, serious and long term commitment that is so exciting. Betsy Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, made a real commitment to Nam June Paik and wants to recognize the importance of the moving image in late Twentieth Century art by expanding the Museum’s collection. The rewards have been enormous attendance, interest from students in the area, as well as from colleagues around the country, and we have gotten nice response in the DC press. So it is very gratifying.

WCP: What are some of the challenges of presenting an exhibition like this?

JH: The exhibition required an enormous infrastructure designed to make this work: a false wall to put wiring behind, a non-visible door that leads to a whole tech area. It all turns on automatically to make the thing operational. It was an enormous effort in the wiring and designing the space and we have on staff some terrific people—Michael Mansfield who provides invaluable support of my program through his technical knowledge and the Museum’s  exhibition designer David Gleeson.

I had a very clear concept of the exhibition and how I wanted work to be placed in relationship to each other and in that space; I didn't want to make it a dark chamber. I'm really tired of these dark spaces. Sometimes it's necessary, but I wanted it to be light enough so that people could feel like they could walk around and could look at different kinds of work next to each other. The Kota Ezawa 3-D installation really pops, and brings you into the gallery.

My goal was to create a dialogue between historical pieces and contemporary work. So we have Cory Arcangel near Nam June Paik,  Peter Campus next to Bill Viola. These are very deliberate juxtapositions. And the medium—that maybe the custom electronics of Jim Campbell or the restored early television which is from the Paik Archive on which  Nam June's video tape is being shown, and flat screens of different types. It's an effort to look at the artist's work and its relationship to the medium on which it is exhibited.

WCP: Returning to the Paik archive, you're preparing an exhibition for that in 2012.

JH: Yes. Its working title is Nam June Paik: Art and Process, which identifies what I like to represent, which is both the materials the artist worked with, from the archive, as well as texts of writing that will relate his work to his ideas: that there was an idea and a process he went through to create his pieces. And we will have loans of his pieces not seen so often in this part of the United States: some from Europe, as well as other parts of this country. So, it's going to be a very focused show, with clusters recognizing groups of work: video for television, video for essays, performance and music. We want to create a mix of all of this to show his working method. I want to make it a very inviting show. I don't want to make it overly pedantic. It's sort of a process of discovery going through and seeing his different ways of working and realizing that what a large accomplishment his work was, how it embraced so many facets of the moving Image.

You know, I really do feel that 20th century art history is going to be rewritten through the moving image: from film to video and television, to video games, interactive platforms, the Internet. All the arts—whether literature, poetry, dance, sculpture—have changed because of these media as art forms. The whole telling of stories has changed remarkably through the impact of cinema and television and all of these moving image discourses. And they've also become art forms themselves, not only as classical cinema but as avant garde film practice, documentary, narrative, video art, installation and performance  all throughout the 20th century. The very exciting access to a global history of the moving image through the Internet as well as the mobility of the artist to work and create digitally in a variety of forms and through diverse media platforms. It is really the new paper, the new printing press. However you want to look at it! That changed how we saw information. I do think that artists give us new ways to see ourselves and see the world around us, it is at the center of art history. And Nam June certainly achieved that transformation of video through his art making. Making in the process a lasting contribution to art history.

And, I think the big challenge for museums is are they going to become how they can exhibit and represent that history of the moving image and place it alongside the other arts. As we look to the future of a global media culture how will the museum become a  living, changing place for seeing this complex variety of art practices. In a small way, I think that's what American Art Museum is trying to address with its major commitment to Nam June Paik—there is no other museum that has on display work of such scale that has been restored by the museum. Those two big pieces! [Megatron/Matrix and Super Highway/Continental US] We take it for granted in Washington, but it is really stunning. And it is very important. And that is what attracted the archive here to the American Art Museum.

WCP: It is interesting how you mention the function of museums. There are always arguments stating museums are supposed to be the arbiters of taste. Do museums still function as taste-makers and how does the incorporation of the moving image add to that discussion of good taste or what is aesthetically pleasing?

JH: Well, the conditions of what is culturally seen as aesthetically pleasing are changing ones, as we can see across the history of Western art and across the 20th century. The roles that art plays, what it addresses, and the communities it serves is not a single univocal discourse. And, the museum, one must remember, is a recent invention. Its roots go back to the Wunderkammer of the Renaissance as a place of collecting oddities from a world that people were exploring, to a fashioning of the great museums of the imperial conquests of states in Europe, to the formation of museums in the West around the great industrial capitalists (Whitney, Guggenheim, and so forth), to the formations of the art-world marketplace in recent years. The art museum has become increasingly an educational place where ideas in relation to changing interpretations and representations of art history circulate. Over the past art museums have become large cultural attractions. One of the great assets of the Smithsonian is that they are free to the public. Really! People from all walks of life can come. It doesn't cost $20 a head to go to the museum. It's one of the things that drew me here: a great educational institution devoted to preservation and making art and culture available to the world at large. What a great ideal!

So, I think I'd like to answer this in a couple parts.

The Smithsonian in terms of being a great national resource is a place for a work to be preserved and understood, and that is part of what a museum does. You can go and see a film as a film; you can go and see a painting as a painting. In other words: you can go to see the original work. And if there is a true curatorial process of representing history, genre, and movements, it is a place you can learn by seeing what those genres and movements were, and are. It is a place of education, which is certainly an increased role the museum has played – is playing – it's a place where people can see work, and learn about the ideas that inform art. Art just doesn't happen; an individual or group of artists are informed by ideas and they are exploring ways, through diverse media and materials, ways to express those ideas. That is a role that museums can and should play.

There is also the great tradition of connoisseurship. The great collections of the 19th century, like that of the Frick, were teaching and establishing a tradition of aesthetics and quality. In the late 20th century, the post-modernists and the great avant-gardes began to question institutional norms and art historical discourses and art market values. And as artists they wanted to return more to the everyday material world that people, in fact, inhabited and lived in: you know... everybody is not rich! Art is not just for and by elites. Art engages ideas, gives expression to stories of knowledge. It questions conventions and gives form to our worlds of diverse ideas. This leads one to be open to the variety of art practices and to rethinking the histories that compose and too often regulate our views of the past and of daily life.

These are all part of the epic issues of change. I think we are about to enter a new one—the museum space: What is it? The virtual one? How do we represent copies and originals? How do we place time-based work in a situation where it can be seen and appreciated, and shown in relationship to the other arts? Increasingly with the flat screen, the mobility and definition of projection, this is becoming more and more feasible. You can imagine individual pieces in Watch This! being in a gallery alongside paintings. Bill Viola has done this with his work. Major museums have opened their classical collections to his work. He gave a lecture at the Frick, the great repository of a past tradition. So this is all a part of the changing perspective that recognizes convention and tradition are limited. If you only say art is part of a particular tradition or convention, that is a very limited view, and that's where the museum can play an important role because people expect, and the curator has to make transparent the informed curatorial process that goes into the selection and exhibition of artwork. The museum can become a true laboratory of art and a resource that brings ideas into the public sphere.

WCP: You're working for a government institution. I'm curious what kind of effect a shut-down would have on your research, your access to the archives, and the progression toward the Paik Archive exhibition in 2012.

JH: I don't know! I've never been in this situation because I have never worked for a government agency when this has happened before. I've heard from other colleagues who've been there that apparently when there is a government shut down, it stops. It all stops. You can't come into the office. So, all the people that are working on the (Paik) archive and my access to it… and depending on how long it is... It is sort of hard to imagine. I just don't know! Everybody is wondering. The last time this happened I wasn't there; I was off in private institutions.

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