The Body Electric: Jon Kessler on Nam June Paik

By Kessler, Jon | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Body Electric: Jon Kessler on Nam June Paik


Kessler, Jon, Artforum International


I FIRST SAW Nam June Paik's work in 1977 at Documenta 6 in Kassel. Twenty years old, with two years of art school under my belt, I was hitchhiking through Europe when I came upon the art world's temporary Emerald City. The exhibition was dominated by Joseph Beuys, whose Honeypump in the Workplace, 1974-77, snaked through the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, and who had programmed one hundred days of Free International University events. Paik's contribution was TV Garden, 1974. It was a sprawling installation that looked like an electric, three-dimensional Henri Rousseau--the glow of thirty televisions lying face up silhouetted a thick grove of potted palms, creating a dark jungle in which the viewer could get lost. Global Groove, 1973, which would become Paik's signature video feed, played on the monitors.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It may not be an overstatement to call Paik a visionary--he coined the term electronic superhighway, and Global Groove's rapid edits anticipated the look of mediated imagery in today's age of the attenuated attention span, as well as the bodily experience of electronica and rave culture. For years, whenever I saw a new Paik video, I could swear I'd seen it before. And indeed I had: Images of works by '60s avant-garde heroes such as Beuys, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Charlotte Moorman, and Karlheinz Stockhausen would float in and out. These figures were integral to Paik's artistic DNA, and Global Groove not only samples their work (turning Paik's own darling friends' projects inside out) but creates feedback loops with hysterical and intriguing effects. Many of these effects are now available as off-the-shelf software packages, but it is important to remember that, with the help of engineers, Paik invented his own video synthesizer in order to produce them.

TV Buddha, 1974--Paik's telegenic bronze figurine "watching" its own image on a monitor--is considered his interpretation of a Zen parable, but it also reveals his familiarity with Western media theory. So, while representing an unanswerable koan, it simultaneously comments on Marshall McLuhan's notion of a "global village," as well as the Debordian undoing of the self through accumulated representation. …

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