Highlights of Tate Modern’s Nam June Paik Exhibition

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Tate Modern is hosting an exhibition devoted to Korean-American artist, Nam June Paik, through February 09, 2020. In the very first room of the Paik show at the London gallery, a carved Buddha sits upon a rectangular block of stone. Facing Buddha is a picture of his face, which a CCTV records and relays onto a JVC videosphere. Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” apparently inspired the white casing of the monitor, which resembles an astronaut helmet. The cosmic heads, spaceman and Buddha, are still, but they seemingly watch each other. Walk beyond Paik’s video installation, “TV Buddha”, and you will see yourself briefly in the video background.

The televisions are playing “Global Groove”, which is Paik’s video art work. It opens with the announcement: “This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.” A Rockefeller Foundation grant funded “Global Groove”.

Paik once wrote on an application form that he planned to disrupt national television because he felt it was too nationalistic and passive. In his frenetic and channel-surfing digital collage, Paik brought together experimental theater and Pepsi advertisements. The NY Times published an obituary on Paik’s demise, where the paper termed him a video art ‘prophet’. Paik’s prophecies of an era of mass media appear beyond the ordinary now.

That explains why the man’s creations are nothing but extraordinary. Another video installation by him, “TV Garden” fills up a tiny room at Tate Modern. Here, flashing television monitors are scattered among and light up a dense habitat of plants. “If nature is more beautiful than art,” Nam June Paik noted down, “it is not because of its intensity or complexity but because of its variability, abundant abundance, endless quantity.”

His work, “TV Garden” is conceived and maintained in as careful a manner as any other electronic device. To fully appreciate this work, you should hear and see the monitors, stroll about the tropical plants, and even smell the natural soil (which is impossible at Tate Modern).

Paik collaborated with cellist, Charlotte Moorman. Like him, Moorman also felt that it was wrong to rank sexuality lower in status than classical music. In 1967, Moorman was taken into custody for performing topless as part of their collaborated work “Opera Sextronique”. Police officers arrested her during the performance for “indecent exposure”. The Korea-born American responded to Moorman’s arrest with a sculpture series that might keep her modesty, which included “TV Bra for Living Sculpture”.

This is among the most significant works in the illustrious career of Paik. In it, the sound from Moorman’s ‘cello’ instrument is filtered by means of a processor for modulating the photos that appear on her modified bra. For the hybrid works, Paik took equipment made for use in military and caused it to adapt to the human being. These works function on what Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan termed “the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis.”

Once, Paik wrote to Bell Labs about his ‘electronic opera’ idea, after which they offered him a residency there. Bell Telephone Laboratories had seated many artists such as Laurie Spiegel, Michael Noll, Stan VanDerBeek, and Lillian Schwartz, working collaboratively and independently. Bell Labs also invited Paik, and the company workers Michael Noll and James Tenney taught him the basics of FORTRAN programming language. While Noll was there as a regular engineer, James Tenney lived and worked at Bell Labs much like Paik did. By 1967, the Korean-American was a Bell Labs “Resident Visitor”.

Galleries showing 1900’s mobile works of art or performance art find it tricky to display these. The original objects, while intended to be used or to move, are too valuable or fragile to operate today. Are people there only to see these works or enjoy the experience of seeing, touching and may be even changing these?

Tate Modern does not solve this issue, but its curators found several unique ways around it. Its Paik retrospective culminates with the jaw-dropping video installation named “Sistine Chapel”. Numerous projectors tied to scaffolding make a continually changing sequence of pictures across Tate Modern walls and the final room ceiling. Paik wished the video chapel installation to be so bright and noisy – recordings and graphics with imperfections and glitches pop up all around those on Tate Modern tours.

The piece has been shown for the first time since the 1993 Venice Biennale, and Paik left no notes for the reconstruction of it. A long-serving assistant of Paik namely Jon Huffman has scrupulously mapped the setting here, and the call to upgrade the CRT model projectors appears to be right.

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