Magazine article Artforum International

"The Worlds of Nam June Paik"

Magazine article Artforum International

"The Worlds of Nam June Paik"

Article excerpt

SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK

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 phase) 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 thee 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 phases as if scheduled by Wolfflin.

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 Gage 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. …

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