NAM JUNE PAIK, TV Fish (detail), 1975–88, three-channel video, 24 monitors and aquariums, live fish, 1158 × 147 × 99 cm. Courtesy Nam June Paik Art Center, Yongin.

Set Video to Record

Korea, South

One remarkable thing about South Korea’s recent history is that one of its best-known citizens abroad is the avant-garde artist Nam June Paik, whose connection to his homeland was always tenuous. Paik, born in Seoul in 1932, didn’t visit South Korea for three-and-a-half decades after he and his family fled the Korean War in 1949 to Hong Kong and later Japan. Though he is widely credited as the pioneer of video art, Paik, who spent most of his life in Japan (where he attended the University of Tokyo), Europe and the United States, might have been shunned in Korea for his radical provocations even if he had lived there. Wherever he went, the nomadic Paik was at the center of controversy. The notorious staging of his Opera Sextronique in New York in 1967, for example, resulted in the arrest of cellist Charlotte Moorman, who performed the piece topless.

The opening of the Nam June Paik Art Center in Gyeonggi province outside Seoul in early October, 2008, marked the culmination in South Korea of a renewed interest in reclaiming Paik as a national artistic hero. Beginning in the 1980s, Korean institutions and media, embracing national aspirations toward democracy and globalization, tuned in to the internationally renowned video artist. Celebrity status boosted Paik’s visibility and commissions in Korea, but focused attention on the humorous, pop-influenced threads of his work, notably his video sculptures from the 1990s and 2000s made from television sets. Far less exposed in Korea were the radical aesthetic, philosophical and cultural currents channeled by the exceptionally prescient artist, who died of illness at the age of 73 at his winter home in Miami in 2006.

Aiming to put right what he calls the “vulgarization” and “propagandistic exploitation” of Paik’s work, Young Chul Lee, artistic director of the new USD 26 million, 5,600-square-meter Nam June Paik Art Center, focused the museum’s inaugural festival on a corrective look at the artist’s career. Lee, who directed the 1997 Gwangju Biennale and the 2000 Busan Biennale (formerly known as the Pusan International Contemporary Art Festival), titled the multi-layered, four-month-long event “Now Jump” after a mandate for action borrowed from Aesop’s Fables. The show’s core layer revisited the artistic and social tumult of the 1960s with works by Paik, his many collaborators and dozens of like-minded artists, interspersed with wall texts, photographs, video and audio recordings, musical scores and other artifacts.

“Now Jump” showcased Paik’s affinities with some of the most transgressive of his 1960s Neo-Dada contemporaries. Photos showed various performances by Vienna Actionists like Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl, who reveled in nudity, coitus, amputation, blood, feces and animal corpses. Kindred in anarchic spirit, if tamer, were images of Paik’s performances in quasi-musical happenings like the 1961 staging of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s instruction-based, multi-performer event Originale and Paik’s own Etude for Pianoforte (1960), featuring Paik playing fragments of Chopin, crying, throwing himself onto a broken piano and, most notoriously, cutting off composer and audience member John Cage’s tie. One newspaper photo showed the severed cow’s head that Paik hung on the door of his first exhibition, “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1963. This untitled meaty offering reportedly stunned German audiences more than Paik’s 13 completely unprecedented video works—made with magnets that distorted the images on TV sets scattered throughout the gallery—in his debut exhibition, none of which were included in “Now Jump.” Defiance was evident in other early Paik video works such as the iconoclastic Nixon TV (1965), a pair of monitors in which the broadcast image of the US president delivering a speech is distorted by electromagnetism, which Paik produced in collaboration with TV engineer Shuya Abe by laying a loop of copper wire on the screen. Paik’s interference with TV sets became his hallmark gesture, acting upon a technological medium that normally imposes passivity on its viewers.

Other archival works and materials on view depicted 1960s figures such as Allen Kaprow, George Maciunas, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Beuys, Mary Bauermeister and dozens more, many of them movers in the transnational Fluxus art movement in which Paik played a key role. The social and political movements that shaped Paik’s time were also glimpsed in news photographer Xiao Zhuang’s images of China’s Cultural Revolution, and archival photos of the student uprisings of 1968 and the Woodstock music festival in the summer of 1969.

Still more unruly than the 1960s were the war-torn 1930s, 1940s and 1950s of Paik’s youth in Korea and Japan, captured on newsreels and photos displayed in one intimate gallery that contextualized his early years. Family photos reveal that Paik was brought up in a wealthy merchant clan, affording him access to art and culture. Display texts presented verse by modern Korean poets; images showed a Japanese modern dance troupe active in the 1920s.

Central to the show were questions about artistic influence. In the 1960s, Paik hailed video as a medium to escape the influence of Marcel Duchamp. Paik’s iconoclastic stance toward the father of Dada is emblematized by the inclusion of a large painting, Wang Xingwei’s Poor Old Hamilton (1996), showing an impish child being scolded in an art gallery after smashing Duchamp’s Large Glass.

Throughout the Nam June Paik Art Center’s three levels, and in a temporary space set up in the high school gymnasium across the street, were works by more than 90 of Paik’s peers and younger artists. “Now Jump” suggested that Paik influenced other artists not as an oppressive monolith to be toppled, but as a playful, enabling colleague whose explorations helped others blaze their own trails. Across a diverse spectrum of artworks, there was evidence of Paik’s humor, his adoption of new technologies and his forging of artistic collaborations, as well as with his focus on processes rather than messages. Paik’s emphasis on the body echoed in works like Kunyong Lee’s performance-painting Bodyscape 76-2 (1976), in which Lee painted his own silhouette on a wall by standing against it and applying broad, arms-length strokes all around.

The show also included a generous helping of pivotal later Paik works such as Elephant Cart (1999-2001), a wooden elephant steered by a Buddha-statue mahout pulling a wheeled assemblage of old TV sets that display footage from a wildlife documentary. The entrance lobby hosted the delightful TV Fish (1975), 24 freshwater aquariums filled with live fish and plants, each mounted in front of a TV set showing footage of Merce Cunningham dancing, spliced with Paik’s signature jagged video patterns and lyrical imagery including jet planes in a skywriting show.

Rounding out the show, “Now Jump” also featured a performance series with 21 artists and groups, including ultra-courant dancers Kris Verdonck and Boris Charmatz. Les gens d’Uterpan, a septet led by Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet, integrated performers among gallery-goers in X-Event 2, a Laocoön-inspired arrangement of underwear-clad models posing as if for a Calvin Klein ad shoot, but drooling streams of saliva onto each other’s bodies.

With its enterprising breadth, “Now Jump” approached the scale of a biennale, yet with Paik’s animating influence infusing it with spirit and a rationale. The festival heralded the ambition of artistic director Young Chul Lee, and of chief curator Tobias Berger to transform the center from an artist’s archive into a dynamic home for the many contemporary art practices Paik helped set in motion. Sustaining the opening’s achievement will be the greatest testimony to Paik’s immortality.