Installation view of NAM JUNE PAIK’s Electronic Superhighway, 1993, 47-channel video installation, dimensions variable, at the Germany Pavilion, 45th Venice Biennale, 1993. Photo by Mark Patsfall. Courtesy Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.

Speeding Down the Electronic Super Highway

Also available in:  Chinese

There was once a time in the (art) world, not so long ago, when geographical distance still mattered, and when countries, people and cultures still appeared “foreign.” There was a time when you couldn’t easily see artworks from around the globe, randomly agglomerated on your morning Instagram feed. 

Looking back on Nam June Paik’s exhibition in the Germany Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, one becomes melancholic for that pre-globalized art world, when much of what was to come in the electronic super-future was still a topic of speculation. Paik’s exhibition was important as much for what it showed—a huge global, multimedia spectacle—as it was for the fact that a “non-German” artist represented Germany in a historically charged building. The commissioner for the 1993 pavilion, Klaus Bussmann, called Paik an Ehren-Gast-Arbeiter, an “honorable foreign worker” of the Federal Republic of Germany. Paik titled the exhibition “Electronic Super Highway ‘Venice Ulan Bator,’” and what an intense digital experience it was.

But before arriving on this highway into the future of art and technology, one had to travel back into the past. The Germany Pavilion is historically fraught; it was completely renovated in 1938 under the direction of the Nazi regime. Architect Ernst Haiger deployed many of the Nazi aesthetic principles used in official buildings constructed or planned under Hitler’s rule (1933–45) with deleterious results. Besides adding a neoclassical facade, and raising and enlarging the building, the all-capitals Latin name “GERMANIA” was installed in large letters on the frieze while the parquet flooring was replaced with a finely pored white marble.

Installation view of NAM JUNE PAIK’s Marco Polo, 1993, Volkswagen car body, refrigerator, old television chassis, neon, three metal television cabinets, flowers, six Quasar televisions, laser disk player and Paik video program on laser disk, dimensions variable.

Entering the Germany Pavilion in 1993, audiences encountered the work of Hans Haacke, the artist invited to exhibit together with Nam June Paik. Known for his political and social commentaries on the institutions where he exhibits his works, Haacke completely demolished the white marble floor of the large hall, transforming it into a field of small rubble piles. For many viewers, the room resembled the multiple ice floes of Caspar David Friedrich’s dismal-sublime painting The Sea of Ice (1823–24). Haacke then removed the letters of “GERMANIA” from the facade and installed them on the wall above the crumbled marble floor of the main hall. It was a strong political and artistic statement, critiquing the very country whose pavilion he was exhibiting in, thereby challenging not just German national history but the entire idea of national(ist) representation at the Venice Biennale. 

At the time, an artistic committee of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany appointed a curator for two consecutive biennials who was then free to select the artist(s) for the pavilion. Commissioner Klaus Bussmann was in a rather comfortable position in 1993, as he had already received high praise for the widely celebrated German Pavilion of 1990, the 44th edition of the Biennale, with his selection of conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and the sculptor Reinhard Mucha. The Bechers’ work that year was awarded the International Prize – Golden Lion. 

The 45th edition was officially postponed by one year until 1993 in order to coincide with the centenary of the Biennale. While some people remarked that it was also a good excuse to gain more preparation time—considering the rather disorganized way the Biennale was run at the time—the world had problems much greater than the Biennale’s regularity. European politics was turbulent. The wall that divided West and East Germany had come down in late 1989, the Soviet empire had crumbled, and the former states of the USSR had reassembled into a completely new structure of partnerships and confederations, completely redrawing the map of Europe. 

Given the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s official reunification in October 1990, one might have expected the German selection for the 45th edition in 1993 to celebrate the developments, with, say, one artist from the former West and the other from the former East. Government officials urged Bussmann to do exactly that, but the had curator made other plans. 

Bussmann did indeed select an artist from the West, but the “far west.” German-born Hans Haacke had lived and taught in New York since the 1960s. In conjunction with him, Bussmann chose an artist born in the “far east”: the Korean-born Nam June Paik, who also lived in New York but had resided and exhibited in Germany in the 1960s and still held a professorship at the prestigious Düsseldorf Art Academy, a position from which he was notoriously often absent. Paik was one of the first truly global artists, born in Korea under Japanese occupation, attending school in Korea and Hong Kong, studying art in Japan and Germany, and finally settling down in cosmopolitan New York in the early 1960s before reconnecting to his Korean roots in the 1980s. 

Nobody had seen such an installation before, a visualization of the information-overload that we would come to experience as travelers on the future electronic super highway

Bussmann was aware that the selection of a nominally Korean-American artist to represent Germany in the prestigious Venice Biennale would not go down well with the bureaucrats in Berlin and therefore informed the press about his decision to invite Paik before notifying the government administration. It was a bold and smart move, as Bussmann knew very well that in those days, a “German artist” was still supposed to be of German descent. In retrospect, inviting Paik to represent Germany was as subversive as Haacke’s well-articulated critique that Germans have not dealt properly with the country’s horrific history, an allegation that was much discussed in the 1990s. The discourse about what German art actually is, or, for that matter, how to define what Germany itself was, remains a highly contested and contemporary question about nationality, identity and immigration. 

Installation view of NAM JUNE PAIK’s Tangun as Scythian King, 1993, welded steel framework with old television chassis and picture tubes, neon, large brass mail box, and metal pole staff with speakers, dimensions variable.

NAM JUNE PAIK, Tangun as Scythian King (detail), 1993, welded steel framework with old television chassis and picture tubes, neon, large brass mail box and metal pole staff with speakers, dimensions variable.

For a visitor to the 1993 pavilion, after digesting Haacke’s minimalist but thematically heavy installation in the main room, one had to leave the pavilion out the same door one entered. To view Paik’s works, one had to venture through the garden in order to visit one of the side wings and then leave these two smaller rooms again and visit the other two small rooms on the other side. Direct access between Haacke’s installation and Paik’s four side rooms had wisely been closed off, as it would have seriously affected the reading of Haacke’s work, while Paik, who could be quite pragmatic, would have also caused far more challenges for viewers with the disruptive sound spill from his works.

Paik’s two installations, one symbolizing East and the other West, in the two wings of the building, were composed of a huge accumulation of more than 48 three-beam-projectors and more than 500 television monitors. In the “East” wing of the pavilion, Paik presented his own history, mostly together with his lifelong collaborator and “muse” Charlotte Moorman, who had died just two years earlier after a long fight with cancer. Representing “the West,” in the right wing was the installation Sistine Chapel before Restoration (1993), which was total sensory overkill, with multiple overlaying projections on the seven-meter-high walls of the pavilion. The countless images were impossible to grasp at any single moment, resulting in a sense of utter visual inundation. 

Nobody had seen such an installation before, a visualization of the information-overload that we would come to experience as travelers on the future electronic super highway. There were the images of musician David Bowie and dance troupe La La La Human Steps beside John Cage, Joseph Beuys, as well as other art, film, music and dance greats such as Jonas Mekas, Alvin Ailey, Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel, Keith Haring, Janis Joplin, fashion icon Issey Miyake and many more. In his works, Paik had always made great efforts to include as many stars from as many artistic genres as possible, promoting both his friends and associating himself with the stars in each field, thus foreshadowing today’s cult of celebrity.

No one could remember any one single image from this mega-installation, but the impression of a huge, electronic flickering spectacle was burned into every visitor’s mind. This impression recombined with those of Paik’s other installations, forming an immense, flicker-cloud filled with reminiscences and new encounters. 

Outside, in the Giardini surrounding the pavilion, Paik and his dedicated team installed video and neon sculptures welded together with the old scrap and junk of the modern electronic civilization—empty TV cases, neon pictograms, working video players and electronic circuit boards. This army of lost souls resembled a dystopian rearguard of human-made soldiers left over from a past civilization, a dramatic contrast to the rest of the Biennale. Next door stood the slick yellow-and-black installation by Yayoi Kusama at the Japan Pavilion, while the inside of the France Pavilion was completely tiled in white by Jean-Pierre Raynaud. 

Paik’s robotic-looking army of electronic scraps was reminiscent of the many military figures that have shaped the complicated relationship between East and West: Marco Polo, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Catherine the Great, Genghis Khan. They could also have been seen as a memorial for the Crimean Tatars who saved the life of Joseph Beuys by rescuing him when the plane he was flying during World War II was shot down—one of many links in the installation to Paik’s friend, the German über-artist, who had exhibited in the same building in 1976. This caravan of nomads was out there, roaming the Giardini, thrown into the world from the very same city where Marco Polo had started his historic voyage to the East 700 years earlier. These nomads each stood for drastically different kinds of travel and communications.

NAM JUNE PAIK, Sistine Chapel Before Restoration, 1993, four-channel video installation with forty-two video projectors, dimensions variable.

 Almost 30 years later, these sculptures have now been dispersed around the world. With the advent of the global art market in many different countries and international museums, there is a strong chance of encountering a world completely connected and an abundance of information available in everyone’s palms—all thanks to the “Electronic Super Highway,” a concept that Paik himself had already proposed in 1974 in a paper commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1993, the year he used the title for his presentation in Venice, Paik proudly proclaimed that Bill Clinton had stolen his seminal idea for his presidential election campaign.

Two years later, in 1995, the last official country pavilion was erected within the confines of the Giardini, the South Korea Pavilion. The architecturally postmodern structure is sandwiched between the Germany and the Japan pavilions. In terms of his national affiliations, Paik could have legitimately exhibited in all three pavilions, and, after a lifetime of pioneering works in video, music, performance, sculpture and electronic art, he could have easily filled all three buildings at the same time. The year 1995 also marks the commencement of the Gwangju Biennale, the most important festival established in Asia—another global milestone that Nam June Paik was heavily involved in, and part of the global changes foreseen by Paik in his vision of a world connected through the “Electronic Super Highway.”

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