Outside the Box: Turning Television Sets into Art Is a Compelling Conceit, Says Brian Dillon
Dillon, Brian, New Statesman (1996)
Nam June Paik
Tate Liverpool and FACT, Liverpool
The Korean artist Nam June Paik, who died in 2006, might be said to have invented--or at least foreseen--our media-sodden present. Paik was most likely the first artist of the 1960s to tinker with video technology, pre-empting by a few years better-known experiments by the likes of Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola. But his ideas, and the textures of the work itself, ramify beyond the now familiar realm of video art. Paik was convinced that television and video were the keys to a new internationalist consciousness, expressed not so much in Marshall McLuhan's frictionless "global village" but in the clash of disparate images and a liberating effacement of distinctions between art and life, producer and consumer.
The ambitious double retrospective in Liverpool demonstrates the essential legacy of Paik's art and the ultimate limitations of his quasiutopian vision. Here are charmingly antiquated instances of his early deployment of television in the gallery, spectacular examples of his later video installations and many single-channel videos documenting collaborations with John Cage, Joseph Beuys and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Paik began his career as an avant-garde composer, and some measure of his antic humour is in evidence in the several Cage-inspired works at Tate Liverpool. His notion of the musical score stretched to include lengths of magnetic tape stuck to the manuscript, over which the listener was invited to stroke the tape head of a cassette recorder. And, in a long collaboration with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, he invented such absurdist contraptions as the "TV bra" and the "TV cello".
Such neo-Dada shenanigans ought not to suggest that Paik was above making resonant and poetic artefacts. Quite the most impressive and oddly affecting display at Tate reproduces in part his 1963 solo exhibition "Exposition of Music--Electronic Television", which included 13 modified TV sets. Magnet TV is a vintage set with a large industrial magnet placed on top so that the image is distorted into a gorgeous geometric whorl. …