Nam June Paik Transcends the Screen

SFMOMA brings the transnational artist and digital visionary’s work to California for Paik’s very first West Coast retrospective.

Every major museum with modern art has at least one work by Nam June Paik. And if they’re smart — if they recognized how quirky, prescient, and trailblazing Paik was — they have multiple Paik works, like the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which features Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, a U.S-shaped, 40-foot long, neon-light-flashing, 51-channel video installation that’s arguably one of the greatest works of video art ever produced. 

Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii is funny, profound, busy, and brilliant. In other words, it’s everything that Paik was. Still, the fact this work occupies a museum that signifies great American art is misleading since Paik was a transnational artist born in Seoul, South Korea; in 1950, he and his family had to flee from the war in his homeland to Hong Kong and later, he moved to Japan. Paik was also a resident for several crucial years in Germany, where he met minimalist composer John Cage and other avant-garde artists who helped change his artistic scope and helped set Paik on an artistic journey that, yes, saw him move to the United States, but also made Paik what he was until his death in 2006: an artist of ideas who looked for inspiration in various geographies like Mongolia; a multi-linguist proficient in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and English, who coined the term “electronic superhighway” in 1974; and an artistic futurist who was at home with coding, computers, and other electronic gadgets in their early incarnations, and who used these electronics to make language-agnostic art that could appeal to anyone, anywhere. 

You don’t need to be a polyglot or know any language to be moved by the first two video works that greet visitors at SFMOMA’s exhibit, Paik’s “first-ever West Coast retrospective” as the museum claims: TV Buddha from 1974, which incorporates a closed-circuit TV camera, a white television shaped like an astronaut’s helmet, and a centuries-old wooden Buddha — so that the Buddha is watching himself on TV, and art-goers who walk up watch the Buddha watching himself; and Egg Grows from 1984-1989, which incorporates a video camera, a single egg, and eight video monitors that extend rightward from the egg, and get bigger and tilt harder as they go along — so that the scene becomes as much a visual hijinks as a construct of artistic repetition.  

‘Egg Grows’ is on view now at SFMOMA (Courtesy Photo)

When Paik first made TV Buddha, he also substituted himself for the Buddha’s position — closing his eyes, meditating, and essentially doing a live performance where Paik became the TV Buddha and the object of visitors’ gazes. This performative side of Paik, where Paik involved himself (and others) in his art, was essential to his early works, as in his cello pieces with Juilliard-trained musician Charlotte Moorman, where Moorman would perform with Paik as the instrument. Paik, who was also trained in music, would put a long musical string on his back, mount and embrace a seated Moorman (who was often topless), then stay still as Moorman “played him” with her bow — fingering him with vibrato and tapping Paik on the head for extra vibe. With Moorman, who was one of Paik’s longtime collaborators, Paik found an artist who also wanted to add a sexual element to public exhibits. 

“Sex is very undeveloped in music, as opposed to literature and optical art,” Paik wrote in 1964, three years before New York police arrested both Paik and Moorman for what they deemed a lewd performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique, in which Moorman played topless before an audience of mostly men. In a photograph from the excellent catalogue that accompanies Paik’s new exhibit, the men — many of them burnishing huge smiles — are crowded into seats of the Times Square performance space, clearly enjoying themselves, in contrast to a photo taken soon after of undercover police hauling Moorman away, with officers holding onto Moorman’s neck and cello as she cried out in duress. 

That arrest garnered headlines in the New York Times and other newspapers (“Cops Top a Topless ‘Happening,’” screamed one headline, using a description of experimental events that were common in the 1960s). Paik could be a total prankster, evident by his now-famous 1960 performance of Étude for Piano Forte in Cologne, Germany, where he interrupted his piano playing to go into the audience, cut John Cage’s tie in half, rip into Cage’s shirt, and pour shampoo over the heads of Cage and another minimalist musician in attendance. “I am determined,” Cage said later, “to think twice before attending another performance by Nam June Paik.” 

Cage would quickly relent, and he and Paik were lifelong friends. And these early works by Paik belied a career that saw Paik focus on works like TV BuddhaEgg Grows, and TV Cello from 1971, which is a cello that comprises three TVs that, at SFMOMA, play jump-cut, archival film of Moorman performing with it, along with images of Paik, frenetic squiggles, and other eclectic images. Paik would also go on to orchestrate live performances on TV, as with the 1984 show Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, which was filmed live from San Francisco, New York, and Paris, and featured appearances by singers Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel; literary celebrity George Plimpton, who hosted; the band Oingo Boingo, which performed from San Francisco as surrealistic images played in the background and women in colorful dresses danced live in Paris; John Cage, who used a feather to play an odd-looking electronic instrument; Fluxus art movement founder Joseph Beuys (a longtime Paik collaborator), who performed with two Turkish musicians; dancer Merce Cunningham, another longtime Paik collaborator, twirling over footage of artist Salvador Dali; poet Allen Ginsberg, who sang humorously with a backup group about meditation; and Moorman and Plimpton playing Paik’s TV Cello, whose televisions screened live images from Paris. 

Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, which SFMOMA is screening in a large theater-sized gallery (and can be seen online on YouTube), was Paik’s rebuttal to Orwell’s still-popular 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which predicted a world of government surveillance that would repress people in sickening ways. Instead, thought Paik, the world had become more connected through TV and satellite technology, allowing people around the world to be more open to other cultures and other people. Paik, Plimpton said, labeled the live broadcast “a global disco.” 

In 2012, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum held a major exhibit of Paik’s work (after acquiring his archive in 2009), it titled the exhibit, “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary.” That’s a perfect description of Paik’s output and of Paik himself. As Sook-Kyung Lee, a curator at London’s Tate Modern, which co-organized “Nam June Paik” with SFMOMA, notes in the accompanying catalogue, “Identifying what is Korean, Japanese, German, or American about Paik’s work would be a futile task.”

Also futile: choosing a favorite among the more-than-200 works at SFMOMA. While Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii isn’t there (unfortunately), so much of Paik’s output is there, and so many videos with Paik are screening, it feels like Paik himself is welcoming visitors to each gallery. And in a way, Paik is. At the start of his career, he predicted an interconnected world where visuals, sounds, and other elements would easily convey information to people across borders and time — and Paik made art that seems as current today as it did in Paik’s lifetime. 

Paik’s abstract works, like Magnet TV from 1965 (which shows a kind of twisting nucleus), are especially timeless. Paik’s TV-related art is instantly recognizable as a distinctly Paik work. His large robots made of TVs and other parts, like Merce/Digital from 1988 and John Cage Robot II from 1995, are the apotheosis of art that’s unpretentious, infectiously funny, and incredibly detailed on close inspection. John Cage Robot II features everything from a necktie to chess pieces and piano hammers. That’s the brilliant thing about Nam June Paik: You can enjoy his art from a distance, but when you get up close, you realize how much more is there. Paik invited either perspective. Television, Paik knew, could truncate ideas into bite-sized experiences that might undermine a depth of understanding. He played into this with his 2005 work called Self-Portrait, which features flashing clips of his TV appearances in a vintage television set whose screen he marked with scribblings. Made one year before his death, Self-Portrait is like a visual strobe light, with so many sped-up images that it’s almost hard to watch and concentrate. But Paik made one thing crystal clear: He signed the TV on one side in English, Korean, and Chinese. Paik didn’t pledge allegiance to one language. Or to one country, really. He fit in wherever he found himself, even if that meant making art that challenged that country’s prevailing art aesthetic.  

Nam June Paik

Through Oct. 3 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. $19-$25, 415-357-4000, sfmoma.org

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