When artist Nam June Paik died earlier this year, we lost a real pioneer of media art. Because of his work, I could never peer into the face of a TV screen or video monitor the same way. I will never forget Paik’s tower of TV’s stacked up in the middle of a Seoul modern art museum in the configuration of a Buddhist stupa or his TV robots in Seattle in the middle of the then newly remodeled Broadway Market. Below, Seattle artist Norie Sato writes eloquently about her friend and fellow art explorer, Nam June Paik.
– Alan Lau, Examiner Arts Editor
BY NORIE SATO
Special to the Examiner
Nam June Paik, the grandfather of video art, and the single most influential artist in the electronic arts field, died Jan. 29, 2006 in Miami, his winter home. A gentle man, whose demeanor of modesty and generosity belied his huge influence, Paik was born in Korea and started his artistic life as a musician. His pioneering work opened the way for artists to work with video and other electronics and prompted galleries and museums to exhibit it.
He studied music in Tokyo, having fled Korea on the eve of the Korean War, then moved to Germany where more radical music experimentation was occurring, and musicians such as Karl Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage were performing. It was his growing radical attitude toward music in the early 1960s that led him to work with televisions. First he manipulated the televisions with tools, magnets or otherwise changing the settings. Because he was a musician, he stated that “he understands time,” the most critical element in video art that distinguished it from the other visual arts.
He was the first artist to own a “Portapak,” Sony’s first portable video camera/recorder system, having convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to buy it for him in 1965. On his way home from the store, he was caught in a traffic jam caused by the visit of the pope to New York. His first tape came from that time, which he showed to fellow artists at the Village Vanguard later that evening.
His experimentation with video art as a sculpture pioneered video installation, now so prevalent with younger artists worldwide. His “TV Buddha” which he showed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York became a classic, the first video exhibition at a major New York museum. He used televisions as props in performance, initially with Charlotte Moorman, a cellist for whom he made a “TV Bra” and a “TV Cello.” In 1980, 25 years after he first purchased the Portapak, the Whitney Museum in New York presented Paik’s first retrospective.
He was a tireless promoter of video art, and came to Seattle to talk about and show his work “and/or” in 1976 and again in 1980. The emphasis on video art in “and/or” was partly due to his influence on the contemporary arts field in the early 1970s. CoCA presented his “TV Robots” at the Broadway Market in 1986. His influence in the field of contemporary art is immeasurable and virtually all artists working in media, installation and performance owe something to his legacy.
“Painting is dead,” he said, “long live video art.” More importantly, as guiding words for all of us, he said, “There is no such thing as boring art. There is only good and boring art and bad and boring art.”
He was gentle, charming, ironic, witty. He was afraid of mice, very aware of his Asian and creative roots, generous, and very aware of American (and world) culture. In many ways, he was the “father” of all of us who make art with new media. The whole idea of video art was born and in many ways died with him because we are now in digital image making, which is not specifically video any more. It’s amazing how fast the change has been. We have been lucky in Seattle to have been touched by him directly. The wake for Nam June in Seattle was held Feb. 20, 2006 at 911 Media Arts Center.