Merce by Merce by Paik: Part Two: Merce and Marcel: Five Segments, 1975-1976,
Single-channel videotape, colour, sound. Part of Merce by Merce by Nam June Paik. In collaboration with Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham, and Shigeko Kubota. Music: John Cage, David Held. Host: Russell Connor. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Did Nam June Paik Predict YouTube?

The groundbreaking artist's retrospective opened at the Tate Modern this week.

by Sanjana Varghese
Oct 20 2019, 9:45am

Merce by Merce by Paik: Part Two: Merce and Marcel: Five Segments, 1975-1976,
Single-channel videotape, colour, sound. Part of Merce by Merce by Nam June Paik. In collaboration with Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham, and Shigeko Kubota. Music: John Cage, David Held. Host: Russell Connor. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

"This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow when you will be able to switch on any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book." Nam June Paik, Global Groove (1973)

Nestled among luscious plants in a dark room, a dozen televisions race through a video in unison—a woman playing a gong against a green backdrop, Richard Nixon’s face, distorted by an unseen force, then again a gyrating figure in front of a bright background, in a movement not unlike an aerobics video. This is TV Garden—a seminal piece of video art by Nam June Paik, the Korean-born experimental artist, now the subject of a new retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Born in Korea, Paik emigrated to Germany to study classical music and soon started to create experimental work, disregarding the boundaries of medium and subject, often borrowing from performance art, electronic music and increasingly, the medium of moving images. The irreverent tone of his output, which often poked fun at the seriousness of the art world, as well as his commitment to transcending artistic limitations have cemented Paik’s status as a genre defining artist. Often referred to as the father of video art, Paik took to handheld cameras and pushed the boundaries of television—not just through video installations, but through creating public TV broadcasts and live performances, opening up a new field of possibilities for artists.

"Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses," 1971, Photograph, gelatin silver print. Lent by the Peter Wenzel Collection, Germany

In this retrospective, many of Paik’s pulsating, playful installations are being shown together for the first time, ranging from select members of his family of crude robots (called Auntie and Uncle) to his short experimental films, to his sweet, minimal drawings. Other ephemera, many of which have been in private collections—such as notes, prints, scores and posters advertising performances around the world—are on display too.

His video installations dominate the retrospective. Paik died in 2006, but his work has been painstakingly recreated, often with duplicates of the original equipment they were staged with in the 70s, such as cathode ray televisions, with the wires and plugs necessary to keep the installations on in full view. Several elements are interactive. One room features five of his works, such as the thrumming, frenetic Information Dream, a prediction of the early Internet. An installation of 52 cathode ray televisions stacked on top of each other, broadcasting random footage from Kraftwerk to dance recitals, it seems almost alive. In the final room, the Sistine Chapel—an overpowering, 360 degree installation, is staged for the first time since the Venice Biennale in 1993. Made without regard for the architecture of the room it’s projected in, it features overlaid video footage of Paik’s friends and collaborators, like David Bowie and Merce Cunningham, as well as brief clips from his other work, like people writhing on flags and TV interviews. It gives you a sense of the ingenuity and ambition that Paik never compromised on, even towards the end of his life.

"TV Garden," 1974-1977 (2002), Single-channel video installation with live plants and color television monitors. Courtesy Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Particularly inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s theory of a ‘global village’, collaboration and transnationalism were at the heart of Paik’s practice, not a side effect—nowhere more evident than in this retrospective, where the minority of labels on the artwork solely feature his name. Paik was an integral member of the art collective Fluxus, and he was inspired by figures like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who became his collaborators—appearing in his experimental short films, such as in Merce by Merce by Paik, where Cunningham dances over a soundtrack of a phone call between himself and Russell Connor. In the transnational broadcast Bye Bye Mr.Kipling—a reference to a Rudyard Kipling poem with a sentiment Paik was intent on disproving—figures like Issey Miyake, Keith Haring and Ryuichi Sakimoto speak to each other and try to have a toast across the world, in a kind of glamorous Skype call from Korea, Germany, Japan and the US. All the while, troupes of dancers and acrobats dance in the background. A whole room is dedicated to Paik’s partnership with the electrifying, avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman—on two televisions, footage of performances where Moorman played him as a human cello (with the utmost seriousness) are broadcast, atop two stacked barrels.

“His intention was to show that there was a place for artists to use technology, for the purpose of making sure that technology was in the service of humanity,” says Valentina who is a Curator of International and Displays Art at the Tate.“Control, the sociological implications of technology – all of these were subjects which Paik was attuned to, and he was beginning to see these predictions come true.” Paik is often credited with coining the term “information superhighway”, in an essay he wrote in 1974, and much of his work demonstrates his attempts to create a kind of technology which could be used for cultural transmission.

"Robot K-456," 1964, 20-channel radio controlled robot, aluminium profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. Courtesy Friedrich Christian Flick Collection in Hamburger Bahnof

Throughout his career, Paik found that his imagination outpaced what was technically possible with the technology of the time. The relevance of Paik’s work—his willingness to critically engage with new technology, his emphasis on blurring the boundaries between art, the personal and the experimental—has only intensified since his last retrospective in the UK in 1988. In the 1990s, Paik said, “I make technology ridiculous.” Perhaps, but he made it exciting too.

Nam June Paik
Tate Modern