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Artists Nam June Paik
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Nam June Paik

Korean American Composer, Performer, Sculptor, Video and Digital Artist

Movements and Styles: Performance Art, Body Art

Born: July 20, 1932 - Seoul, South Korea

Died: January 29, 2006 - Miami, Florida, United States

Nam June Paik Timeline

Quotes

"(Video synthesizer is) a device that would
enable us to shape the TV canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollack and
as lyrically as Jasper Johns"
Nam June Paik
"Information is no longer a means to get something live and concrete, but has become an end in itself. The age of 'Information's Sake" is dawning after a hundred years of 'Art for Art's Sake.' Communications flow is the new metabolism of Homo sapiens. Constant change in taste and fashion is an organic input/output process equivalent to the transformation of food in protoplasm; as natural as breathing in our body, waves in the sea, or the waning of the moon. Someday brain-power must prevail over oil-power and petrol will become as obsolete as the dinosaur."
Nam June Paik
"While movie, TV technique will be revolutionized, the scope of electronic music will be widened to the new horizon of electronic opera, painting and sculpture will be shaken up, intermedia art will be further strengthened, bookless literature, paperless poem will be born."
Nam June Paik
"The building of new electronic super highways will become an even huger enterprise. Assuming we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics: the expenditure would be about the same as for a Moon landing, except that the benefits in term of by-products would be greater."
Nam June Paik
"Suppose a girl in Kentucky wants to study the Japanese Koto instrument, and a graduate at U.C.L.A. wants to experiment with certain Persian or Afghanistan musical instruments. How would they do this? The malleable television (i.e. videotape) would enable individual lessons for many subjects to be given from anywhere to anywhere."
Nam June Paik
"What we need now is a champion to free trade, who will form a Video Common Market modeled after the European Common Market in its spirit and procedure; this would strip the hierarchy of TV culture and promote the free flow of video information through an inexpensive barter system or convenient free market."
Nam June Paik

"Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body's new membrane of existence."

Nam June Paik Signature

Synopsis

Nam June Paik, known as "the father of video art," surfed the forefront of cutting edge technologies and utilized them to realize artworks, the likes the world had never yet seen. His various experiments positioned video as a viable art form, and a tool toward accomplishing widespread, global connectivity - an oeuvre eerily prophetic to our contemporary information age. His revolutionary practice laid the groundwork for today's artists working in new media art.

Key Ideas

Paik's early training in classical music combined with his interest in utilizing sound elements from real life, inspired by artist John Cage, positioned his career early as a member of the Fluxus movement. His passion for combining audio, visual, and electronic elements was formed there.
A keen desire to humanize technology underlies all of Paik's work. Whether this is seen through the combination of anthropomorphic objects with video imagery of human beings, the use of a live person in dialogue with technological components, or equipment as a performance, or the forced interaction of a viewer with a particular artwork - his work incites reflection on both our relationship with technology and its affects on, and benefits for, modern man.
Very early in his career, Paik began writing about his desire for a "video common market" that would allow for the free dissemination of not only artwork, but also education, collaboration, and dialogue on an international scale. His ideas have come full circle with the advent of today's Facebooks and Youtubes - the online platforms that draw users by the billions.
Paik coined the term "electronic superhighway" to denote what he saw as a future in which technology would allow for boundary-less connection between people on a global scale. His term might be considered the first mention of the concept that would eventually become manifest in the Internet, and is in fact, the term used universally today.

Most Important Art

Nam June Paik Famous Art

TV Buddha (1974)

TV Buddha is one of Paik's best-known pieces. This sculpture centers on an eighteenth-century sculpture of a brassy Buddha posed with a tranquil meditation mudra (a symbolic hand gesture used in Buddhism). A video camera in front of him simultaneously records the statue and displays his reflection on a futuristic looking, sleek white television screen. In this closed circuit loop, the Buddha constantly faces his own projected image, caught in an eternal present tense and unable to transcend from his own physicality. The infinite play of the live electronics indicates that the Buddha is doomed to stay on the surface of reality forever caught in the dance between the mind and object reality.

In its simplest reading, this installation highlights the juxtaposition between the East and the West, or the historical and the modern, But more complexly, it reveals some fundamental issues brought up by technology, including the ambivalent position of religion, history, and images of our selves in contemporary society when viewed upon a screen, once removed from reality. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan states, "It is the continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves."

The success of TV Buddha (1974) triggered a series of similar works by Paik. Later variations of the work include Stone Buddha/Burnt TV (1982), which features a Buddha observing a burned television without any electronic power, TV Buddha (1982), featuring a Buddha contemplating a monitor covered by a mound of dirt, and TV Rodin (1982), which places a miniature reproduction of Rodin's The Thinker on top of a Sony Watchman. The proliferance of the Buddha in Paik's work throughout the years might be seen as society's continual contemplation of its own image through the mirrors of ever-morphing technological advancements; an important introspection by the artist regarding his own ever-evolving relationship with modernity.
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Nam June Paik Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Nam June Paik was born into a bourgeois manufacturing family in 1932 Seoul, during a turbulent time when Korea was under Japanese rule (1910-1945). Whereas most Koreans were only granted access to a primary school education under restrictions by the Japanese, Paik was trained as a classical pianist from a very young age. Perhaps this was due to the fact that his father was later rumored to be a Chinilpa, or Japanese sympathizer, whose successful business also contributed greatly to the economic capital of the time. In 1950 at the onset of the Korean War, Paik's family fled to Hong Kong, and later moved to Japan. They first arrived in the port city of Kobe and stayed at a Japanese inn for six months before they settled into a Western-style house, a rarity in those days. The house was in the seaside town of Kamakura, home of the famous Great Buddha statue that Paik often visited and which possibly inspired some of his later works, such as TV Buddha (1974).

Paik's family home was fairly high-tech house for those days, which planted seeds for his lifelong interest in emerging technologies. In 1954, Paik's family bought a large Zenith TV, which was the first television in the entire neighborhood, and all their neighbors frequently came to visit and watch it. In 1956, spurred by his hunger for this new visual medium, Paik got a Bell and Howell eight-millimeter movie camera, enabling his first amateur attempts at filmmaking.

The Paik family was quite cosmopolitan. Their home was filled with records of many classical composers including Beethoven, as well as jazz and swing. His mother drove around in a slick little German Opel. Paik formed a huge appreciation for all kinds of art. He would come to tell his nephew Ken Hakuta - an American inventor and television personality - that just buying a record, book, or magazine, was never a waste of money, even if you never listened to the music or read a word of the book. He felt that supporting artists was a worthy and essential investment.

Early Training and Work

In 1956, Paik received a BA in aesthetics from the University of Tokyo, where he also studied music and art history and wrote his thesis on the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1957, he went to West Germany, which had recently emerged as a bustling center of new music and performance. While there, he studied with composer Thrasybulus Georgiades at the University of Munich for a year and then with composer Woflgang Fortner at the International Music College in Freiburg for two years.

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Nam June Paik Biography Continues

In Germany, Paik met artists Joseph Beuys and John Cage, whose cutting-edge avant-garde actions and performances would be influential in diverting the course of his artistic career. Inspired by Cage's use of everyday sounds and noises in his music, Paik would adopt similar techniques in his own work. This would soon usher his membership into the Fluxus movement, which was formed in the early 1960s around an international and interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, designers and poets known for their experimental contributions to different artistic media and disciplines.

Paik's work rapidly began to expand outside the box of his classical training. In Hommage à John Cage (1959), he employed audiotape and performance to attack traditional musical instrumentation and compositional practices by interweaving piano chords, screaming, bits of classical music, and sound effects together. His use of introducing performative elements into audio works was revolutionary. In 1961 Paik performed Simple, Zen for Head and Étude Platonique No. 3, in which the artist's unexpected and sudden body movements accompanied his signature soundtracks. In 1962 he participated in the Fluxus International Festival of New Music in Wiesbaden - the first Fluxus event organized by George Maciunas. The next year Paik held his first exhibition - a seminal debut, entitled Exposition of Music - Electronic Television, at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. This marked the beginning of his transition to inventor of a new art form, which utilized Fluxus philosophies and also introduced television as a viable instrument. In the exhibition, thirteen televisions, representing individual pieces, lay on their backs and sides with their screen images altered. For example, Zen for TV (1963) reduced the television picture to a horizontal line while Kuba TV (1963) shrank and expanded the image on the television set according to the changing volume. The exhibition was also remembered for Joseph Beuys's participation, after he took an ax and smashed Paik's installed pianos into pieces.

The camaraderie Paik made in Germany with Beuys, Cage, George Maciunas, and cellist Charlotte Moorman supported his metamorphosis from musician, composer, and performer to a multimedia artist. The group often overlapped performances, colluding on elements of spontaneous surprise for audiences. In one example, Paik was playing Chopin on the piano in Cologne, after which he rushed into the audience to cut shreds into Cage and pianist David Tudor's clothes, then dumped shampoo upon their heads. These friends gradually became his extended family, cementing his role within the Fluxus movement and creating the early stage for the explorative work that would soon evolve into some of the most important art of the twentieth century.

In 1963, Paik briefly returned to Tokyo. He brought with him a radical new piece of equipment that would foreshadow his eventual title as the "father of video art." The Sony Port-a-Pak was the first commercially available portable videotape recorder, and Paik started an avid experimentation with it. In Tokyo, he worked with the television technician and electronics engineer Shuya Abe, a crucial assistant in helping Paik realize his projects. Together, Paik and Abe constructed Robot K-456 (1964), Paik's first automated robot. The piece was shown in a series of performance-based projects in New York City and Germany through the end of the 1960s.

In 1964, Paik moved permanently to New York City as part of a significant emigration of artists from Europe to the United States.

Mature Period

Paik had been in a perpetual self-imposed "exile," until he settled in New York. The city's diversity was a source of inspiration to him and he often spoke of the heterogeneity of New York as being the great strength and possibility of the United States. The television, entertainment, and communications industries, where his lifelong interest lay, were centered in Manhattan as well. Famously, it was in New York in 1965 where the first piece of so-called "video art" was created when Paik claimed his video footage of the Pope's visit to be a serious artwork. The footage was shown, later on the day of its capturing, at a screening at the Café A Go Go in Greenwich Village. Albeit grainy, it proved a revolutionary new way to consider art.

John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe at the Galeria Bonino, New York (November 23, 1971). Photograph by Tom Haar
John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe at the Galeria Bonino, New York (November 23, 1971). Photograph by Tom Haar

In New York, Paik expanded his engagement with video and television, and exhibited his work at the New School, Galerie Bonino, and the Howard Wise Gallery. In 1965, while using a portable camcorder, Paik became fascinated with the transmission and manipulation of video imagery. For example, in Magnet TV (1965) the artist distorted an existing video image by placing a large horseshoe magnet on top of a black-and-white TV set. In 1969 during a residency sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Boston public television station WGBH-TV, Paik was finally able to realize his dream of freely altering video image by successfully constructing a video-synthesizer (with Shuya Abe's assistance). The Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer transformed electronic moving-image making, as it was one of the earliest machines that allowed the artist to manipulate existing videos, combine images from multiple sources, and shape the TV canvas like a piece of artwork. When Paik exhibited the Synthesizer at Galeria Bonino in New York, he encouraged visitors to use it, to perform in front of the camera, and to play with their own footage, thus becoming participants and directors themselves. The interactive aspect of the synthesizer corresponded to Paik's longstanding philosophy in favor of the democratic and egalitarian sharing of technology through art. The synthesizer was also applied in his later seminal works including Global Groove (1973), Guadalcanal Requiem (1977), and Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984).

Paik also met his Japanese-born wife, Shigeko Kubota, in New York. The two got married in 1977. Kubota, dubbed the "vice president of Fluxus" by Maciunas, not only fostered Paik's home life, but also collaborated with him on video artworks. Her influence on Paik, in terms of the exploration of the aesthetic, technological, emotive, and even organic potential of video art, merits further study.

Nam June Paik with Buddha TV (1974). Photograph by Eric Kroll
Nam June Paik with Buddha TV (1974). Photograph by Eric Kroll

In the 1970s, Paik continued experimenting with television and video. His philosophical TV Buddha series, first executed in 1974, playfully expressed the paradoxical relationship between technology and human spirituality, which had been under constant debate since the modern age. In these pieces, he commonly placed real life Buddha statues in front of screens on which other Buddhas were shown - spurring viewers to join in the consideration of these two very different yet parallel aspects of humanity.

Nam June Paik with Charlotte Moorman Paik's Lispenard Street studio (Aug 17, 1964). Photograph by Peter Moore
Nam June Paik with Charlotte Moorman Paik's Lispenard Street studio (Aug 17, 1964). Photograph by Peter Moore

In the early 1980s, Paik returned to his earlier interest in cybernetics and robotic art, and created his first series of video sculptures, which epitomized the humanization of technology. One of Paik's rare talents was that he seemed to always be one step ahead in predicting through his artwork the role that rapidly progressing technologies would have within society. One illustration, his Family of Robot, portrayed a benign relationship between the family unit and technological advancements. It was created during a time when Americans were becoming more comfortable with technology as an integral part of their daily lives: tvs, video games, and camcorders populated many homes and, by 1983, the first mobile phones became commercially available. Family of Robot initiated Paik's ongoing series of humorous and engaging robot portraits through the 1990s, many of which were based on historical figures, such as Genghis Khan and Li Tai Po, or his friends including John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Nam June Paik & Merce Cunningham New York City (December 19, 1983). Photograph by Hank O'Neal
Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Nam June Paik & Merce Cunningham New York City (December 19, 1983). Photograph by Hank O'Neal

Paik's hybrid mix of media and the way he linked countries, cities, the avant-garde movements, and popular culture through his satellite productions manifested his utopian and democratic pursuit of cultural, economical, and informational connections and exchanges across the globe without borders. As he wrote in his "Global Groove and the Video Common Market" (written in 1970 and published in the WNET-TV Lab News in 1973), "What we need now is a champion to free trade, who will form a Video Common Market modeled after the European Common Market in its spirit and procedure; this would strip the hierarchy of TV culture and promote the free flow of video information through an inexpensive barter system or convenient free market." Art historian Caitlin Jones notes, "While there may be critiques of the European Common Market in both its original and contemporary forms, it is the utopian spirit of economic and cultural free trade that is ubiquitous in Paik's work."

Later Life

Nam June Paik (1986). Photo by Rainer Rosenow
Nam June Paik (1986). Photo by Rainer Rosenow

In 1996, Paik suffered a serious stroke which limited his physical mobility. As he found himself losing health and strength, his work became more urgent. As his cherished ability to travel all over the world to find sites for his projects was sharply curtailed, Paik's style became characterized by a more self-reflective process in which he chose new forms of artistic expression reflecting his thoughts on global politics. For example, his last work, Chinese Memory (2005), included television sets painted with abstract, expressive shapes suggesting faces or indiscernible Chinese characters. This work also reflected Paik's particular fascination with China during his last years, when the rapid growth of the Chinese economy dominated the international scene and sat central within the art market spotlight.

The aging artist developed much of his late work in dialogue with his studio assistant, Jon Huffman, who remained at his side. Ken Hakuta, Paik's nephew, who visited and lived with him in Manhattan in the 1960s, came back after Paik's stroke to bring the artist's home into financial order and to create a secure and sustaining living environment for his final years. Paik died in Miami in 2006.

In 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the Nam June Paik archive, which includes objects (recordings, vintage electronics, and other source materials) and paper holdings (the artist's early writings on art, history, and technology along with performance scores, production notes, and plans for video installations). His major posthumous retrospective, entitled Nam June Paik: Global Visionary, was also mounted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2012-2013.


Legacy

Nam June Paik's enormous contribution to the history of late twentieth-century art largely stems from his position as the first major Video artist. His groundbreaking exploration and use of modern technologies laid the foundation for a new generation of artists in today's complex media culture. Now media arts are pervasive across the international art world as artists continue to use a mix of film, video, digital media, and the Internet to create work that is visible in museums, galleries, art fairs, online, offline, and everywhere in between.

Remembered as the "father of video art," Paik left behind a remarkable legacy to subsequent generations of artists including Bill Viola and others who explore the potential of videos. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, Viola was artist-in-residence at a number of media laboratories and television stations as well as an assistant curator at Everson Museum of Art. Through these occasions, he was exposed to Paik's art. Eventually, Viola conceived of multi-channeled video installations where viewers could be surrounded by carefully arranged screens and projections, sometimes in pitch-black rooms, an idea similar to Paik's TV Garden (1974-2000) and Megatron/Matrix (1995). Paik's influence is perhaps best described by the contemporary American multimedia artist Jon Kessler: "Paik laid the groundwork for artists like me who play with the apparatus and mechanisms of the medium, turn it in on itself, and come through the rabbit hole still believing that it's possible to make engaging, playful, and serious work."

The ideas of cultural free trade that Paik wrote about and championed have been made manifest through the birth of social media and sites such as YouTube where today's artists can distribute their work freely to an international population. The possibilities offered today via the Internet hearken back to Paik's early predictions of an electronic superhighway.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, claims, "If Picasso stands astride the first half of the twentieth century like a colossus, Nam June Paik is the center of gravity for all that was new in the second half of that hundred-year span. We are only now learning how profoundly his imagination embraced and transformed our world."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Nam June Paik
Interactive chart with Nam June Paik's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Arnold SchoenbergArnold Schoenberg
Thrasybulus Georgiades
Wolfgang Fortner

Friends

John CageJohn Cage
Merce CunninghamMerce Cunningham
Joseph BeuysJoseph Beuys
George MaciunasGeorge Maciunas
Charlotte MoormanCharlotte Moorman

Movements

DadaDada
FluxusFluxus
Performance ArtPerformance Art
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik
Years Worked: 1953 - 2005

Artists

Bill ViolaBill Viola
Jon Kessler

Friends

John CageJohn Cage
Merce CunninghamMerce Cunningham
Joseph BeuysJoseph Beuys
George MaciunasGeorge Maciunas
Charlotte MoormanCharlotte Moorman

Movements

FluxusFluxus
Video ArtVideo Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art
Digital ArtDigital Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jiete Li

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jiete Li
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on Nam June Paik

Videos

Books

Websites

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

exhibitions

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary Recomended resource

By John G. Hanhardt and Ken Hakuta

Nam June Paik: Global Groove 2004

By Nam June Paik, John G. Hanhardt, Caitlin Jones

Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot Recomended resource

By Asia Society, Melissa Chiu, Michelle Yun

Nam June Paik: Exposition of Music, Electronic Television, Revisited

By Manuela Ammer, Susanne Neuburger, Nam June Paik

More Interesting Books about Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman, TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and Chamber Music (1969) Recomended resource

Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman, TV Cello (1976)

Nam June Paik's Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) Recomended resource

Nam June Paik | TateShots Recomended resource

Tate Modern museum's overview of Paik

More Interesting Videos with Nam June Paik
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