Nam June Paik was born in Seoul, Korea on July 20, 1932. He was the fifth and youngest child of a textile merchant. In 1947, at the age of 14, he studied piano and composition with two of Korea’s foremost composers. The family moved to Tokyo, Japan in 1950 to avoid the havoc of the Korean War. Paik studied music, history, art history, and philosophy at the University of Tokyo from 1953 to 1956. He did his graduate dissertation on Schoenberg.
In 1956, he moved to Germany to pursue his interest in avant-garde music. He studied music history under Thrasybulos Georgiades at the University of Munich and composition under Wolfgang Fortner at the Hochschule fűr Musik. He also attended classes under Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, David Tudor, and John Cage. Paik lived in Cologne for the next five years and then returned to Japan for a short time to conduct experiments with electromagnets and color TV sets. In 1964, Paik moved to New York and still resides there today.
They reflected the social atmosphere of Seoul at the time. In 1947, Paik had only one piece of Schoenberg’s work. It took Paik two years to convince a record shop owner to let him listen to what was probably the only Schoenberg record in Korea. Paik had only two compositions by which to judge his “guru.” Then one day in Japan, in 1951, Paik heard a third piece on NHK Radio.
Another of Paik’s great influences was John Cage, whom he met in Germany. Meeting Cage, a student of Schoenberg, was a turning point in Paik’s life. Paik’s piece Zen for Film was definitely influenced by Cage’s 4’ 33”, the silent piece. Cage was devoted to sounds, but Paik was devoted to objects, yet Cage’s influence is evident in all of Paik’s work.
Joseph Beuys, like Cage, played an important role in influencing the direction of Paik’s video work. Paik’s portraits of Beuys constitute a significant body of work. They are more than a homage to Beuys, they are an affirmation of video as a new sensorium that expands the fleeting image on the television.
As Paik’s education was furthered, he became a key in Fluxus art. In 1961, he met Fluxus founder George Maciunas, which began his participation in Fluxus concerts. The visual characteristics of Paik’s concerts gained significance equal to that of the music with his one man show Exposition of Music—Electronic Television in 1963. It included the skull of an ox, 13 pianos, 13 television sets, a mannequin, and several sound producing objects.
Upon his return to Japan in 1963, he found that he could manipulate the television screens with magnets. He began to conduct experiments with the help of an electronics engineer, Shuya Abe. These experiments were the groundwork for Participation TV, an active viewer piece. Abe also assisted Paik in the production of Robot K-456.
In 1965, Paik bought one of the first Sony video recorders sold and began to create video art. Works such as Zen for Film and Global Groove were the results of Paik’s newfound medium. In 1970, Paik and Abe invented a video synthesizer, which made it possible to manipulate colors, shapes, and movement sequences on videotapes and television programs. Paik has been given the title of “Father of Video Art,” as he was the first to use video and television as a viable medium.
The Opera Sextronique was one of Paik’s “happenings” with Charlotte Moorman, the cellist. It included Moorman wearing a battery powered bra with televisions covering her nipples, and the Young Penis Symphony, consisting ten young men sticking their penises through a paper curtain in time to the music. Opera Sextronique was one of Paik’s attempts to integrate sex into his work. Paik once told Manfred Eichel that “The five principles of media are: Sex, Violence, Greed, Vanity and Deception.” Paik used these principles heavily in his earliest works, thus the concept of the Opera Sextronique. In the Opera for one act, Moorman was to perform topless; however the performance was interrupted by police, and resulted in the arrest of Moorman and Paik. The resulting trial was a damper on his “sex into musical performance” campaign.
Global Groove is a video piece with surreal visuals and neo-Dada ideas. Paik manipulates multicultural elements, art-world figures, and pop iconography. He appropriates Pepsi commercials and integrates them with images of contemporary performers such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the Living Theatre Dancers. He synthesizes images of Charlotte Moorman’s Opera performances and distorts Richard Nixon’s face. Global Groove is Paik’s first work with state-of-the-art editing techniques, and was one of a series of innovative and influential videotapes. Global Groove allowed him to create a vehicle for the short bits he had produced and to expand the audience for video art. Global Groove had a profound influence on video, television, and contemporary art. It has set a standard for a new generation of video artists with its state-of-the-art technological innovations and entertaining visuals.
Something Pacific was Paik’s first permanent outdoor installation that relates specifically to a site. This site includes the lobby of the UCSD Media Center as well as the surrounding lawns. On the lawns, several ruined TVs are embedded in the ground along with Buddha sculptures and a Sony Watchman is paired with a miniature of Rodin’s Thinker. A lively interactive installation of televisions is in the lobby. Here viewers are able to manipulate the images from Paik’s videos and MTV broadcasts. This piece contrasts two very different experiences—contemplation and reaction. The broken sets were once removed up by a group of community service workers who thought they were trash, but employees of the university were able to restore them to their rightful places.
In a series that started with Robot K-456, which walked, talked, and defecated beans, Paik used electronics to create humanoid forms. The members of the Family of Robot, instead of the mobile form of “robot,” are televisions stacked up in human forms. These new robots are architectural in nature, animated by the videos, which play on each screen. Family of Robot: High-tech Child consists of 13 modern televisions which flash synthesized images at a rapid pace. Paik’s “child” represents the child of the future, and the present, who has been raised with television as his/her main source of entertainment and information. The “child” stands on an older model TV illustrating the roots of television, and takes a classical Greek pose seen in sculptures of young men symbolizing the artistic roots of the piece. High-tech Child encompasses the elements of both humor and irony found in much of Paik’s work.
Megatron/Matrix is a mesmerizing multimedia installation consisting of a total of 215 monitors. Megatron is a 150 monitor, billboard-sized wall of flashing images forming a visual commotion. Matrix consists of 65 monitors and adjoins Megatron. The video and animations include iconic images from both East and West, pictures from the Olympic games in Seoul, scenes of Korean rituals, David Bowie concert footage, and computer generated animations. Every now and then the entire wall becomes the flag of Canada, Finland or Japan. All of the monitors operate independently, but share multiple random combinations of video. All of this is set to audio ranging from ritual chants to rock, and is controlled by a complicated setup of disc players, computers, and digital sequences. “It’s grand scale and technological prowess,” says NMAA chief curator Jaquelyn Serrver, “demonstrate Paik’s extraordinary capacity to move video from the sphere of the ordinary to the limitless domain of the imagination. He has transformed television into a form of artistic expression particularly suited to our times.”
Paik’s last public performance in 1997 at the Anthology Film Archive in New York City was his piece Coyote 3. The performance starts with Paik seated at a piano with singer, Dina Emerson, and dancer, Simone Forti, standing beside him. Emerson steps up to the microphone and begins to imitate the sound of alarms and sirens, while a video projection of Beuys growling and speaking is played. Paik accompanies the video on the piano, playing broken melodies, sometimes singing along. These fragments of music are as diverse as Paik’s influences. All the while Simone Forti is dancing and singing. At the end Paik turns the piano over until it breaks apart. The lights go out and a laser beam flashed across the stage while the three performers smoke cigarettes. “There is a lot happening on stage and yet very little, normal motions take on other significance, time has become fleeting and geologic. The irrational is given as much importance as the rational,” says Jonathan Huffman, “Paik continues to push for new territories, continuing to redefine situations and new technologies.”
Paik has made the world of television and video art his own. His broad array of work encompasses several disciplines from composing to satellite art. Paik’s varied interests have helped make his art the first of its kind. Paik said of his work, “My experimental TV is not always interesting, but not always uninteresting, like nature, which is beautiful, not because it changes beautifully, but because it changes.” Paik is a visionary artist, he doesn’t confine himself to the standards of the art world, but goes outside of them to find new applications of art to technology. Television has become a humanistic tool in the hands of this artist. His works are always about the sensual aspects of visual response and the joys of watching an image that will disappear. Paik’s realization of the limitless potential that lay within the average television set and his sense of what he could do with it has gained him the distinction as the “Father of Video Art.”
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