From Dec 10 to next March, The National Gallery Singapore will stage its latest blockbuster show: Nam June Paik: The Future Is Now – the last stop of a travelling exhibition that also marks the late South Korean artist’s first major retrospective in the region.
The man was one of the art world’s earliest global superstars and is often considered the pioneer of video art (TikTokers, eat your hearts out). Exhibition curator June Yap tells us why and how his pioneering spirit remains 100 per cent relevant.
Paik in a 1964 portrait, captured by fellow artists George Maciunas and Dick Higgins.
ON WHY NAM JUNE PAIK WAS SUCH A VISIONARY
“It was Paik who coined the phrase ‘electronic superhighway’ in the ’70s – how visionary he was to have predicted the future of communication and the (as yet unborn) Internet just from what he was encountering then. He had already recognised the potential of the media in bridging people and transforming the way they would communicate.
You could say that we are living in the very future he imagined – one in which we coexist seamlessly with and depend on technology. At the same time – by virtue of how he was also critical and concerned about technology’s impact – his works are even more relevant to audiences now, as they compel us to reflect on our own relationship with technology and its effects on society.”
Though Paik first made a name for himself in the ’60s when video art was in its infancy, he is lauded for his prescient vision, predicting the future of electronic communications and the Internet. The John Cage Robot II, for example, is an assemblage of vintage wood television cabinets, colour television receivers, DVD players, multi-channel videos, piano keys, hammers, wire, acrylic paint, a basket, books, wood mushrooms and chessmen.
ON HOW HE CHANGED THE FIELD OF VIDEO ART
“Paik elevated video into an artist’s medium and did it with such distinctive flair that we remember him till today. As exhibition visitors will be able to observe, his determined curiosity resulted in surprising forms and wonderfully inspiring aesthetic leaps.
He also demonstrated unflagging and undaunting creative energy in charting new aesthetic expressions. For example, with some of his earlier works such as Rembrandt Automatic (Rembrandt TV) (1963) and Zen For TV (1963), a couple of CRT television sets – the bulky TVs that dominated the decades prior to the arrival of LCD screens in the 2000s – needed to create them was delivered in less than working condition. Rather than seeing this as a problem, he found a way to transform the technical fault into critical and insightful artistic responses.
Furthermore, his many collaborations, as well as willingness to boldly intersect his practice with other disciplines including nature, design, music, science and spirituality, expanded possibilities not only in the field of video, but also in art itself.”
ON HOW HIS KOREAN BACKGROUND INTERSECTED WITH HIS PRACTICE
“While conscious of his personal heritage – he was born in present-day South Korea in 1932 – circumstances and opportunities in Paik’s life would see him living and working globally. Significant periods of his life were spent in Japan, Germany and the United States, accentuating for him issues of cultural identity and differences in an increasingly connected world.
Here is one of his well-known works, a collaboration with Charlotte Moorman (that’s her performing Paik’s TV Bra For Living Sculpture at the Art Gallery Of New South Wales).
He was deeply interested in Eastern culture and his Korean background would come to the fore in a number of works, particularly in relation to his collaborations and friendship with the German artist Joseph Beuys in the aspect of shamanism. This is observed in some of his artworks, which show how he navigated and thought about these cultural differences at both personal and aesthetic levels.
That said, his background was not treated as an aesthetic, but rather as a medium to examine other cultures. Paik’s success thus largely rests on his foresight, innovation, and in creating works that transformed video into an artistic medium. This thus makes him very much significant then and now with an influence and legacy similar to, say, that of Yayoi Kusama.”
ON WHAT IS COMMONLY MISUNDERSTOOD ABOUT VIDEO ART
“We can certainly look at the technologies and media of today – Youtube, Tiktok, even music video aesthetics – in relation to Paik’s work and ideas. Technological developments and innovations that he predicted are still continuing today. Not to mention, the pandemic has increased our technological reliance, with video at the centre of our interactions.
However, when it comes to video art per se, the value of its aesthetic qualities are sometimes overlooked and it may be thought that it cannot be collected in the same way as paintings or sculptures. This exhibition certainly puts that misconception to rest as the artworks we are showing come from distinguished collections from around the world. It is clear that through their having been collected and preserved, we are able to encounter these amazing creations today.”
A version of this article first appeared in the November 2021 Crazy Cool Asia edition of FEMALE