Monday, April 30, 2012

Nam June Paik

TV Buddha Nam June Paik, 1974

One of my favorite artists is Nam June Paik.  He had one of the longest, most interesting careers in the history of art.  He primarily worked with video and is best known for the use of television sets in his pieces which range from installations, to performances to sculpture.  His extensive use of televisions and videos in his pieces earned him the title, father of video art.  He drew artistic inspiration from the extraordinary life that he lived.  He was born in Seoul, Korea, studied music, aesthetics and art history in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Munich and ended up living in New York.  He started out as a composer and became involved in the Fluxus movement after meeting George Maciunas.  His world travel and immersion in different cultures gave him a unique perspective on life and played a large part in his artwork. 
            With the manipulation of electrical images by his Demagnetizer, Paik had entered a new area of art by using the television as an artistic medium.  Some of the images he created were completely abstract with almost no recognizable objects or beings portrayed.  Some were just distorted views of people.  Some are faces distorted into images that look like a developing fetus which brings us back around to the idea of humanizing the machine.  Paik took the idea of the mixing of humans and machines to many levels.  He often brought the innately human ideas on religious themes into his works.

            This would bring us to one of Paik's most famous works, his TV Buddha.  In this piece Paik had a statue of Buddha sitting in front of a TV with a video camera on top of it that is pointed at Buddha.  The image that is played on the TV is the image of Buddha being recorded by the camera.  Therefore, Buddha is staring at himself on the television as if in meditation upon his own image.  It is possibly a reference to the self-absorption of mankind, as we are supposed to be searching for deeper meaning in life we can only really look as far as our own selves.  Paik brought together the ancient and the modern by placing a TV with a statue of Buddha and then made them one by placing the image of Buddha in the television.  This piece also refers to Paik's roots in Asia.  It exemplifies the general theme of Paik's work, which was the juxtaposition of objects and ideas that one would not normally think of together.
            Paik returned to ideas having to do with religion throughout his career.  My Faust (Technology)  was one piece in a series of thirteen called Cathedral. It was a wall made up of twenty-five televisions set inside a frame that resembles the architecture of Gothic cathedrals.  In particular, it is similar to the façade of Siena Cathedral.  There is also a resemblance to altars of Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals.  The whole piece sat on a black pedestal made up of two steps leading up to the televisions.  The televisions are on and in color.  They displayed various images that flashed onto the different screens in patterns.  
            Paik blended the past and present in this piece.  Although the frame is reminiscent of the Gothic period the shiny metal that it is made out of is completely modern looking.  His addition of knobs, wires and metal spirals to the outer architecture of the piece further added to the modernistic feel.  The televisions, also representative of the modern, took up the most important place in the piece; inside the cathedral, at the altar, to be worshipped.  The title, My Faust, makes the piece more intriguing.  It speaks about the vanity of mankind and their distorted values of what is falsely considered important and what is pushed aside because of that.  In addition, the images flashed on the screen, such as glimpses of Einstein, armored vehicles and the Wright brothers, could represent the ambition of man, which was also an important aspect that led to the doom of Faust.  

1 comment:

  1. I once saw an exhibit (several years ago) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC where, in a darkened room, Nam June Paik (or his team) placed a life-size standing Buddha (stone or clay) some 15 feet away from a vertical stack of 3 to 5 black-and-white TV sets. The screens show floating paper boats on water (a symbol of paying homage to dead people as they go to their final destination. I was mesmerized. Where can I get a photo of that "art installation"? Thank you. James Chan, Philadelphia, PA (Email: