There is a photograph of Nam June Paik taken in December,1976 at his major exhibition in Cologne where he is leaning on one arm and situated between his two video sculptures, TV Rodin and TV Buddha. The position of the artist's hand is not dissimilar to the close-up view of Rodin's Penseur at his left. The equal life-size scale and bracketing of the two sculptural heads within the two monitors on either side of Paik suggests a trinity, a triumvirate relationship.
In the photograph, the artist transmits a symbolic representation of himself as a kind of hinge between East and West. While ostensibly closer to the Buddha on the left, Paik's propped head imitates that of the Penseur. The photograph represents a paradox, an overlay, an equilibrium. The dialectical relationship which is then synthesized into a third element is based on a Hegelian model; yet, in contrast to Hegel, the control element -- the interactive receivership --is never fixed in time. The natural state of cultural being is the emergence of a multicultural identity that remains in a perpetual state of flux.
The early history of Paik as a musician, composer, and Fluxus performer, during the fifties and sixties, cannot be ignored in relation to his later contributions in the field of video art. While he is a careful and systematic philosophical thinker, Paik also has the remarkable ability to provoke irrational situations, to leap outside of the predictable scheme of things, and to envision a techno-sociological reality through a vocabulary that is uniquely his own. Fluxus spontaneity of Paik has been a persistent thread throughout his career.
What makes Paik an important artist, instead of merely a video sensationalist, is his understanding of the systemic mode of behavior in relation to spontaneity. Like the philosopher Pascal, Paik has learned to grasp the limits of logic in coming to terms with intuition as the core of creative experience. Given his early attitude of anti-technological technology, Paik quickly recognized the synaptical charges within the creative act are distinct from simply following the logic of a process. They are the moments when the mind transgresses the rational sequencing of thought and the artist can no longer conform to predictable standards or expectations.
These moments of transgression are a key factor in coming to terms with Paik's video objects and installations. At a recent exhibition of work at the newly re-located Holly Solomon Gallery in New York in 1993, Paik presented a variety of TV icons in which the confluence of one medium fused irrevocably with another. To accomplish this, Paik will often play upon the notion of TV as an appliance -- as a common household presence -- which is then subjected to some form of poetic intervention, thus transgressing the limits of expectation that are given to television as an appliance of home entertainment.
This is no mean feat given the amount of occupancy that television represents in the hyper-reality of today's distanced communications. For example, in Piano Piece, Paik appropriates an upright piano as the primary object with closed circuit video cameras placed at angles to the keyboard and near the hammers above, both using wide angle lenses. Piled in a grid on top of the piano and to either side are television monitors of varying sizes, turned at different angles, so that the viewer is confronted with a convolutionary concept of a piano. The viewer sees the workings of the piano in terms of an interrelationship, both inside and outside. It is a cubist piano. In Piano Piece, Paik has given us an arbitrary TV performance, a three-dimensional presence of a cubist collage -- extending what Picasso and Braque did with clarinets and guitars on a single pictorial surface.
Another major theme, shown at the Holly Solomon Gallery, was a series of simulated video representations on canvas of the late German conceptualist Joseph Beuys. One is called Beuys as Indian Chief(1989) in which an image of Beuys playing his harmonica has been robotically painted with ink. Again, Paik deploys elements of cubist collage with repeated images of the German artist turned at various angle on the far left side. Spliced behind the image of Beuys is a painting of color bars turned at an angle to the portrait in front of it.
Another work, simply called Joseph Beuys, repeats an image of the artist four times from a celluloid strip of Kodak film. Beuys is seen holding a microphone in blue ink on canvas, again using a computer controlled procedure. In Joseph Beuys Paik has incorporated hand-painted calligraphic signs which appear to lend a kind of mystical aspect to the work.
Beuys, like John Cage, played a fundamental role in influencing the direction of Paik's video vocabulary. In this sense, Joseph Beuys, along with other Beuys portraits shown at the Holly Solomon Gallery, comprises a significant body of work. More than a simple portrait or homage, these cinematic images point towards a kind of symbolic affirmation of video, a testament to the power of the intuitive moment in art. They suggest the moment that opens up the possibility of transgression and expands our perception of a new sensorium as delivered through the fleeting transition of the TV image. For Paik, this high-speed image always involves a choice in the transition from one image to another, a transmutation, in fact. For Paik, it is always a wave, a pulse, a discrete moment in fleeting time, as shown in another related work, Casablanca in Red and Green (1988).
From a wider perspective, Paik should be understood as a visionary artist. Like the Hungarian Bauhaus teacher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Paik does not confine himself to the insider trade of the art world, but goes outside in search of new applications of art to the latest technologies. This is not done simply for the sake of spectacle, but in order to enliven the presence of electronic vision in the work-a-day world, to show that television -- given its proper use -- can not only provide information at a faster rate than ever before, but can also offer a more optimistic (as opposed to a cynical) view of multi-culture.
Television could become a humanistic tool in the hands of the artist, a tool capable of transforming society -- not toward an anti-intellectual cynicism or oppressive dictatorship, but toward new applications of interactive informational exchange, new horizons of cognition and purposeful speculation.
Television, at its best, could allow a refined and sophisticated definition of culture that encompasses both East and West. It could provide the necessary linkages between East and West (and elsewhere) through a new ideographic system of cultural exchange. At its social and economic best, television could assist in giving the mind back to body, in giving thought back to language, and in giving consciousness back to action.
It was, perhaps, for the above reasons that in 1974 Paik envisioned the following: A huge new industrial complex connected to a communication network of strong transmission ranges that would generate a demand for countless new video programs to fill empty cable television channels ... Because video programs leave little room to automation, high employment -- especially of skilled workers -- will continue for an almost limitless time.1
In the same essay, he went on to predict the building of new electronic superhighways ... by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges as well as with continental satellites ... bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics. 2
It is not insignificant that Paik envisioned this concept nearly twenty years before its more recent incarnation through a popularized political and economic jargon.
A recent application, on a modest scale, would be the recent Fluxus Internet conceived and organized by Paik in cooperation with John Brattin, Gil Shaar, Larry Miller, and Barbara Moore. Essentially, the project consists of some fifty artists -- mostly Americans and Korean -- whose work can be called on line at any given time. This began as part of a month-long Fluxus festival in New York in October,1994 and was continued with the intention of updating or changing the options. Consistent with the spirit of Fluxus, the Internet promotes the temporality of art as instant communication, transcribing the experience of art from object to event, thus closing the gap between art and its receivership.
In 1973, shortly before Paik began talking about electronic superhighways, he produced Global Groove -- an important video-breaking spectacle aired on WNET-TV in New York.3 The fragments of video montage and collage, partially mixed through the now outmoded Paik-Abe synthesizer, switching back and forth from one time-sequence to another, and from one subject to another, offered an exhilarating opportunity for television.
In retrospect one can see Global Groove as a kind of video masterpiece, a multicultural extravaganza that is fully energized, rhythmical, and both visually and aurally engaging. The cuts between the pulsating pop music of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, John Cage reading a lecture, traditional native American chanting and drumming, Buddhist chanting and finger cymbals by poet Allen Ginsberg, a TV cello performances of Charlotte Moorman, a Korean drum dance, and Japanese Pepsi commercials, give the viewer a wide spectrum of information through a bricolage of sensually optical entertainment effects.
Paik's fragments of information are, in fact, modules of entertainment -- spliced, edited, mixed, overlaid, and sometimes appropriated. Rather than becoming reduced categories of hot or cool media, his video fragments flow together in such a way as to equivocate between these psychological states of receivership. To simplify, one could say that video, being a medium of time, is a trans-sensory experience close to musical performance. This is only true, however, if one acknowledges that the musical structure is known. In Paik's case, it is -- but, again, it is known by intuition; in other words, it is known on the level of infrastructure.
More recently, The Rehearsal was presented at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York in May 1993. It was not a single-channel program mixed for television, but a multi-channel series of programs on multiple monitors that filled the space of the large gallery. The title comes from Paik's design for his installation that would eventually be exhibited at the German Pavilion during the Venice Bienale that summer. The title of the installation was changed in Venice to become The Sistine Ceiling.
Some of the same subject matter used in Global Groove twenty years earlier also appeared in this large-scale installation. The fragments would exist in a theater of simultaneity (to borrow a term from the Italian Futurist Marinetti); but, with Paik, the simultaneity carried a precision balance of timing, flashing light, color, and mixing. It functioned as a complete video sculpture -- what one critic cited as a compendium of the sixties. For example, Joseph Beuys, Charlotte Moorman, and John Cage, all have distinct and repeated appearances in the Holly Solomon installation.
Paik's fragments should not be confused with the more recent computerized terminology of sound bytes. Pragmatically and ideologically, they are different states of mind and different states of visual reception. Whereas the sound-byte, whether in commercials or political news, performs as if rationality existed as its basic modality. Paik's fragments have no sense of this kind of determinism. With Paik, the fragments of his electronic fare are always about the sensual aspect of visual response. They are about the joy of watching something that will inevitably disappear.
1. Nam June Paik, Media Planning for the post-industrial society, (no place of publication), 1976
2. Ibid., p. 12
3. Global Groove,1973. 30 minutes. In collaboration with John Godfrey. Directed by Merrily Mossman. Produced by David Loxton. Produced at WNET-TV/Channel 13 TV Lab, New York.
Copyright ©1995 Robert C. Morgan & Holly Solomon Gallery All Rights Reserved
Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, art historian, curator, and poet.
He is the author of Commentaries on the New Media Arts (Umbrella Associates, 1992), After the Deluge: Essays for Art in the Nineties (Red Bass Publications, 1993), Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (McFarland, 1994), and Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, forthcoming 1997). He is a Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Visiting Professor at Pratt Institute and the School of Visiting Arts in New York. Dr. Morgan lectures regularly and is a frequent panelist on a variety of contemporary issues in art.