April 14, 2013, Smithsonian American Art Museum
By Cosima Storz
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is celebrating the work of Nam June Paik with the exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. The museum is showing a collection of his work spanning his lifetime and is also displaying objects of inspiration to him from his Chinatown studio in New York City.
Paik is known for his various TV sculptures that play with found footage and also assemblages of footage that has been heavily altered. His work is overwhelming at times and reminds me of the history of TV and the Internet. His work is a character of the time it was made in, relying on now outdated TV's and mixers. His art is about playing with this information and making people in control of it.
A Symposium was held in his honor on April 14, 2013, bringing together people that have written about him and have worked side by side with him. The first speaker was Edith Decker-Phillips. She is a German curator and focused on Paik's life and work in German in the 1960's. Paik was exploring action music and just started to play with TV sets. The biggest change that happened to Paik was John Cage's lecture on Zen and Zen in America. As a Korean, Paik thought that American's could not understand Buddhism. Paik spoke to Cage and Cage said that he should not forget his Korean heritage. This sparked Paik's interest in combining TV sets with his Korean culture, especially with Buddhism. The first work from this was "Zen for TV", which is on display in the museum show. It shows a simple line across the TV screen and hints at what was to come for Paik's later work.
The second lecture was led by Jud Yulkut. He is an artist himself and helped Paik in creating and editing films. They had a shared interest in the physical change of the film. They both believe that the nature of the environment is more on film. Film can become scratched and dusty over time, thus showing age and change. A funny moment during this talk was the technology issues and problems in showing the videos. But once the glitch was fixed a round of applause accompanied the film. Many in the audience saw the humor in this moment and thought that Paik would have liked it.
After Mr.Yulkut was Stephen Vitiello, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the Kinetic Imaging Department. Vitiello was an assistant of Paik in his later years at Intermix Studio in New York City. He also worked with Paik when he was setting up his Guggenheim retrospective. This speaker was the most insightful because of his personal stories that let the audience have a glimpse of who the person was behind the work. One story was that Paik had a lost collection of audio work. Vitiello's interest in music and performance made him want to find this collection and save it. One day Paik shoved a box of mixed up reels and told Vitiello to make sense of it. To Vitiello's delight it was the lost collection of Paik's early experimental music. Out of that collection a CD of Paik's work has been published and much of it is now shared online. I enjoyed this talk because it showed Paik as a human but also an elusive person even in life.
John Hanhardt lectured on Paik's performance work. Hanhardt is the curator for the Paik Smithsonian show. Interestingly Paik carried his performance aspect into his TV sets in that he allowed for viewers to manipulate the sets through mixers and magnets, which would create altering visuals on the screen.
The final speaker was Gregory Zinman who focused on the use of music as painting. He touched on artists throughout history that have combined light or visual work that interacts with music. Paik is most known for his work with video sets but he was also a painter. Zinman showed instances in Paiks work where technology and paint would cross over and inspire each other. Again this lecture was fraught with technical difficulties, which took my focus out of the lecture.
What I took from this Symposium is the importance of Paik's musical pieces and his interest in interacting with the audience. He was a playful artist and has lead the way in the medium of technology. He makes TV a reality and puts the viewer in control. Despite the prevalent technical problems, I think Paik would have appreciated this occurrences and deemed them appropriate for his life's work.