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Nam June Paik and video art at the Tate Modern

Nam June Paik is one of those artists with a purpose, a precise purpose: to combine art and technology to create a sharing experience that tells about all of us and our daily lives. And today we discover his story through his works in the exhibition that has just ended at the Tate Modern in London. Considered the father of 1960s video art Nam June Paik is recognized today as one of the most influential artists of our culture and his works can be found not only in museums but also in major international art fairs, such as Frieze London

His greatest fortune was to be an artist open to change and attentive to what was happening around him. Born in Korea, in fact, he then lived in Japan, Germany and the United States. Thus he met great artists such as John Cage and Joseph Beuys questioning not only the boundaries between East and West but also those between art and music and art and technology. His work is made up of sculpture, installation, music and television broadcasting. And he shows it at Tate just starts with some of my favorite works that feature television. 

Nam June Paik – 1974

TV Garden 1974 TV Garden is Nam June Paik’s idea of ​​the future. A landscape where technology and nature come together. This belief is based on the Buddhist idea that everything in the world is connected with its surroundings. There are two interpretations of the work: on the one hand we could see it as a natural landscape infested by technology. On the other as a coexistence between these two worlds. One of the most interesting things is that it is actually an opera within an opera. In fact, the televisions all simultaneously broadcast a video by Paik made a year earlier and which mixes music by Beethoven with Nigerian dances and Japanese commercials.

TV Buddha from 1974 and One Candle from 2004

Also from the same year TV Buddha in which a small sculpture of Buddha fixes his image broadcast on the TV in front of him. A sort of technological mirror that tells us how we are used to immersing ourselves in TV in our daily lives. But also a struggle between the image par excellence of meditation in the East the Buddha and the symbol of technology in the West, television. 

Television that is emptied in one of Paik’s latest works: One Candle from 2004. Inside there is only one candle, a symbol of silence and meditation in both Western and Eastern cultures. And which is the protagonist of several works by other artists as well as in the case of I grew up in solitude and silence by Olafur Eliasson.

Nam June Paik and experimental music

But Nam June Paik’s works are not only made of television, but also of music. Indeed, he studied classical music at the University of Tokyo and this led him to have the first contacts with the experimental composers of the 60s and 70s such as John Cage. From here he has exhibited in various galleries in Germany works that combine his passion for music and his interest in technology. And the most famous of these was in 1963 in a large villa where modified musical instruments, objects that played with the wind and 3 pianos were exhibited, one of which was destroyed in an impromptu performance by another great artist, Beuys. 

The piano can be found in various works by both Cage and Paik. However, its use is different. Cage makes the instrument emit random sounds thanks to the use of objects or food inside it. While Paik in works such as Prepared Piano decides to glue some of the keys or to place other objects such as barbed wire which force the pianist to adapt while playing. 

The main element is obviously randomness. The same also applies to completely different works such as Zen for Wind where the wind plays an instrument invented by Paik with random materials that emit all different sounds. 

Random Access of 1963

But also in Random Access of 1963 which means precisely “random access”. In this work the visitor interacts with magnetic audio tapes attached to the wall and activates different sounds which are then played randomly by an instrument. One of those works by Paik that I, for example, didn’t know entirely, but which best describes his passion for experimentation. 

Nam June Paik and video art – TV Robots

In the early 1960s Paik began to create not only with music but also with television broadcasts. Many of his works demonstrate that television is becoming more and more present in everyone’s daily lives in the mid-1900s. But contrary to what one might think, he sees it as a tool for spreading culture and art, not as a negative element of mass influence. 

For example, in Participation TV it is already clear from the title that TV is for everyone and of everyone and one enters the work by participating. Your own image is reflected in three colors by three internal circuit cameras, making the spectator the protagonist of the work and of the film. 

Its purpose was to bring technology closer to man. It was invented by man and for man.are also born TV Robots. It is said that for these works he contacted several companies that made high-tech instruments asking if they would like to participate in experiments of “electronic art”. Thus already defining in the 60s what would later become a fundamental movement of contemporary art. 

In Aunt and Uncle he creates two robots made entirely of televisions. But they are part of a larger group of family members. Paik realizes three generations, starting from the grandparents and reaching the grandchildren. Beyond the size of the robots, what distinguishes the different ages are the televisions used. We start from those of the 30s for grandparents and then get to those of the 60s for grandchildren. Today these are probably his best known works and I’m sure you too have seen them at least once. 

Internet Dream of 1994

This exhibition at the Tate was a fantastic opportunity for me to also discover some objects from his studio. Having worked in the past in an artist’s archive, I am happy that more and more notebooks, sculptures and drawings are used to tell some fundamental steps in an artist’s journey.

But I’m also happy to have seen some of his installations all together for the first time. For example, Internet Dream from 1994. It is called Paik’s video wall because it consists of more than 50 televisions which, joined together, reproduce a wall of images. This work is a tribute to the evolution of technology and the possibility of using it to positively share a message. The title tells how the Internet in those years was starting to become a reality and therefore a dream come true for him. 

Nam June Paik and his relationship with Fluxus

Paik wanted to use technologies to share and distribute art and develop an interaction with those who participate in his works and with other artists. And this desire to collaborate is reflected in all his works and in the friendships he builds.

Thanks to his travels around the world, he met numerous colleagues and in the early 1960s he began to take an interest in an experimental collective: Fluxus. He becomes the protagonist, but then moves away over time due to clashes with its founder George Maciunas. However, the ideas of randomness and the desire to experiment in every situation remain the link between Paik and Fluxus, of which today he can be considered one of the most interesting artists. 

Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman

His collaborations are not only with other visual artists but also with musicians. For example the cellist Charlotte Moorman with whom he worked for almost thirty years. Together they created live performances involving music and nudity. The principle from which their works started was the absence of sexuality in the world of music in contrast to the visual arts. In these performances Moorman played the cello while stripping during the performance. Of course this led to her being known as the “topless cellist” and even being arrested in 1967 New York. But despite this, the two never stopped.

Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys

Another famous collaboration was that between Nam June Paik and the German artist Joseph Beuys. After they met in Germany on the occasion of a Gruppo Zero exhibition in the 1960s, they never separated. Both wanted to bring together the cultures of West and East, man and nature and have incorporated spirituality into their work. 

The work by Paik that best describes this shared interest is certainly The Mongolian Tent, created for the 1993 Venice Biennale. And which won the Golden Lion for the German Pavilion on that occasion. Marco Polo’s journey from Venice, the city of the Biennale to Mongolia, is the protagonist of this work. The symbolic materials of his friend Beuys’ creations are used, such as felt, but are integrated with the characteristic objects of Paik’s works, such as the television and the sculptures of Buddha inside the tent. Paik, unlike Beuys, has always stayed away from politics and has worked more on technology and communication. But the friendship between the two was fundamental to his works and celebrated on several occasions. 

Nam June Paik and video art – The Sistine Chapel

Another important work of Biennale The 1993 Sistine Chapel, which has been reconstructed at the Tate for the first time in almost 30 years. A eulogy and summary of Nam June Paik’s career. More than forty projectors continuously reproduce the images of his previous works, videos of collaborations with other great artists of the 20th century and performances with public figures. A collage of the artist’s life and works that tells us not only the importance of his works for contemporary art, but above all sends us a message. What technology, if used in the best way, can be a tool for sharing art and culture and also a tool for continuous experimentation. 

I left the Tate exhibition with the idea that each of us can tell and share our experiences in the art world in our own small way, both as an artist and obviously like me as an enthusiast. Each with their own tools but always with the idea of ​​wanting to send a positive message. 

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