Electrifying, Playful ‘Nam June Paik’ Turns Up the Dial at SFMOMA

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Seen from overhead, a man in light blue shirt and black pants lays spread-eagle surrounded by TVs and their cables
Timm Rautert, 'Nam June Paik lying among televisions, Zürich,' 1991.  (© Timm Rautert)

Of the many predictions Nam June Paik made about humanity’s relationship to media and technology, the artist’s 1968 video sculpture TV Chair is perhaps the most spot-on antecedent—and antidote—to life in 2021. In the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s long-awaited retrospective Nam June Paik, a closed-circuit camera points down at the clear plastic seat of the chair, under which a television screen points up, broadcasting the camera’s feed (originally, an overhead view of a sitter) to that person’s backside.

It’s an imperfect ego machine, a hilarious ouroboros of live TV that makes the act of sitting worthy of attention, then denies the person getting that attention the possibility of ever seeing themselves on screen. Imagine posting not to Instagram, but to a black hole.

If you’re unfamiliar with Paik’s contributions as the “father of video art” before his death in 2006, the fault may lay, in part, on institutional scarcity. This retrospective is the first major Paik show in the United States in over two decades—and his first ever large-scale survey on the West Coast. Curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling and the Tate’s Sook-Kyung Lee, with SFMOMA assistant curator Andrea Nitsche-Krupp, Nam June Paik rounds up five decades of the artist’s innovative work (the press release calls him “visionary”) on the museum’s fourth floor. Working across mediums and continents, Paik routinely defined and expanded the parameters of what we now call media art.

A black-and-white photo of a man sitting on a chair with one leg resting on the opposite knee. He looks up and points at a camera above his head.
Friedrich Rosenstiel, 'Nam June Paik sitting in TV Chair,' 1976. (© Friedrich Rosenstiel, Köln/Cologne, Zentralarchiv für deutsche internationale Kunstmarktforschung ZADIK, Universität zu Köln)

In a photo from a 1976 exhibition in Cologne, Paik sits puckishly on TV Chair, hamming it up as so many do when a live feed angles their way. While we can’t replicate this pose ourselves (museum rules), we now control our own live feeds—and these days, they come with instant gratification and endless feedback, no Paikian subversions in sight. Paik predicted that too. A 1973 screenprint hanging beside TV Chair takes the form of a mid-century ad, asking “Do you know... How soon artist[s] will have their own TV channels?” Replace “artists” with “everyone” and don’t forget to like and subscribe!

It’s hard to use the word “technology” in 2021 and not immediately conjure its ill effects. But for Paik, technology was a tool. Over his long career as an experimental musician, video-maker, installation artist and inveterate collaborator, he embraced emerging modes of producing and disseminating art as a means of creating work that was, according to him, “95% new.” He was energized by the Sony Portapak, cathode-ray tube televisions and satellite broadcasting; technology pushed his art into everyday spaces and created scintillating new experiences for his audiences.

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Where the technology didn’t exist, he invented his own. In 1969, Paik worked with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe to build the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer, a hulking contraption capable of editing multiple video images in real time. They collaborated even earlier on the precarious-looking Robot K-456, a radio-controlled figure that performed at the 2nd Avant-Garde Festival in New York, where it played a recording of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address while excreting dried beans.

Installation view of Nam June Paik, 'TV Garden,' 1974–77/2002 at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. (© Estate of Nam June Paik; photo: Peter Tijhuis)

Paradoxically, much of the technology in Nam June Paik has become so outdated it now resembles magic again. This is especially the case with Paik’s “prepared televisions” like 1963’s Zen for TV, which condenses the televised image’s information down to a single white line. (This was the result of damage the set sustained while shipping the TV to his first major exhibition, the extensively documented Exposition of Music – Electronic Television at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany; Paik embraced the accident.)

Two years later, Paik created Magnet TV, twisting a TV’s electronic signals into a beautiful—and variable—spirographic pattern. Interacting with this piece has become a form of maintenance reserved only for conservators: SFMOMA staff move the magnet once a week to prevent any one image from being permanently burned into the television screen.

A U-shaped magnet on top of a CRT television creates an image of wavy, overlapping white lines on the dark gray screen.
Nam June Paik, 'Magnet TV,' 1965. (© Estate of Nam June Paik; photo: courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

So much of the work in Nam June Paik was originally meant to be touched and manipulated—the best word is perhaps “played.” The twin concerns of conservation and COVID-19 precautions mean that some of the pieces that might have been interactive in earlier incarnations of this exhibition are now manipulated only by museum staff on a set schedule. But visitors can still turn Foot Switch Experiment on and off; watch and hear a staff member run a magnetic audio tape head over the criss-crossing pattern of Random Access; and indulge in the Exploratorium-esque red, green and blue lighting effects of Three Camera Participation/Participation TV.

Even so, that level of interaction is nothing compared to what it must have been like to experience Paik’s performances in person. There was the night in 1967 when cello player and frequent collaborator Charlotte Moorman was arrested mid-concert for performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique in various states of undress. There was the time in 1963 that Joseph Beuys, not yet wearing his signature felt hat, smashed one of Paik’s pianos with an ax. Or in 1960, when then-28-year-old Paik cut off the famous composer John Cage’s tie, shredded his clothes with scissors and dumped shampoo over the older man’s head as part of Étude for Piano Forte. (“I am determined to think twice before attending another performance by Nam June Paik,” Cage said later.)

In a black-and-white photo, a woman wearing glasses made from small TVs plays a "cello" made from three TV monitors.
Peter Moore, 'Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses,' 1971. (© 2021 Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

Even as he grew older, his reputation as an international artist cemented, Paik remained impossible to pin down. In his satellite broadcasts Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984, of course) and Bye Bye Kipling (1986) Paik created shows that connected live events happening across the world, and in the latter, videos of “East meets West” subject matter: Lou Reed and Kabuki theater; Philip Glass and a marathon in Seoul. Both videos, around 30 minutes each, screen in the exhibition’s “Transmissions” room on a back-to-back schedule. Watch these while imagining yourself at home with an ordinary-sized television rather than a room-sized projection. Imagine the 1980s programming that would have bookended Paik’s cacophonous footage. Revel in that dissonance.

The bits and pieces in Nam June Paik that testify to all the moments we can’t relive—posters, photographs, Moorman’s TV Cello—are static stand-ins for Paik’s electrifying presence. But the sheer amount of stuff in SFMOMA’s show does build a ghostly image of Paik, mostly found in the objects documenting his collaborations with Moorman, Beuys and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. His feelings for these artists manifest in the artwork he made for them and to honor them: wearable devices, a cement replica of a certain felt hat, a dancing figure made out of vintage video and radio cabinets.

In a large gallery filled with purple-blue light, multiple project images layer over the walls and ceiling as three people stand around watching.
Installation view of Nam June Paik, 'Sistine Chapel,' 1993/2019 at SFMOMA. (© Estate of Nam June Paik; photo: Andria Lo)

Only Sistine Chapel, the show’s final installation, is alive in a way that requires no mental time-travel, no animation of still images. Truly spectacular in the “big” and “loud” sense of that word, the piece projects video and sound from a central scaffolding onto every available surface, with images, as Frieling writes in the catalog “deliberately misaligned and layered, disrespectful of each other’s boundaries.” Playing videos from Paik’s past, Sistine Chapel, originally staged in the German Pavilion of the 1993 Venice Biennale, offers a different take on the retrospective you’ve just seen—remixed in Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer style, still pushing beyond the edges of comfort and comprehension, interrupting even the closed loop of his own artistic career.

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‘Nam June Paik’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 3, 2021. Details here.