Mr. Paik Goes to Washington

USA Korea, South

The archives of Nam June Paik have found a new home in the American capital. The guardians of Paik’s estate chose the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as major museums in the United States vied for the thousands of objects, artworks and documents belonging to the late artist.

Best known for his work with television sets assembled into robot figures or stacked in towers displaying hyperactive, fragmented images, Paik (1932–2006), who was born in Seoul but lived most of his life in Europe and in the US, is considered the first video artist and the originator of the term “information superhighway.” The vast collection of objects and documents—the archive declined to reveal their estimated value—ranges from videocassette recorders and hand-held cameras that defined Paik’s early career, to his correspondence with his Fluxus collaborators including composer John Cage, as well as the documentation for his more ambitious later installations. Since Paik was an artist who balanced heady social commentary with playful whimsy, the archive also contains antique radios and toys that he kept as inspiration.


Objects and correspondence from the Nam June Paik Archive now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Gift of the Nam June Paik Estate. Photos by Gene Young.

In recent years, the archive was housed in New York’s Chelsea gallery district. Prestigious institutions were invited to submit proposals for the archive, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim and Whitney museums. Notably absent from the list was the new Nam June Paik Art Center in Yongin, Korea. Center director Tobias Berger told ArtAsiaPacific that the institution was not invited to submit a proposal. “The Nam June Paik Art Center was never approached officially or unofficially to bid for the archive of Nam June Paik. The archive would have been a great addition, but we are looking forward to working with the Smithsonian.”

Paik’s nephew Ken Paik Hakuta made the decision to donate the archive to the Smithsonian, where it will be overseen by John Hanhardt, a consulting senior curator for film and media arts. An essential figure in Paik’s career, Hanhardt curated Paik’s two major retrospectives, the first in 1982 at the Whitney, and 2000’s “The Worlds of Nam June Paik” at the Guggenheim.

“He had a global presence and influence and his art and ideas continue to inspire a new generation of artists,” Hanhardt told AAP. “The Paik Archive at the Smithsonian will provide an extraordinary opportunity to give a fuller picture of this seminal artist, and it is essential to creating the history of the moving image in 20th-century art.”

After cataloguing and documenting the collection, the museum will establish a Nam June Paik Center, directed by Hanhardt. Materials will be exhibited and available to scholars and artists by appointment.