“NAM JUNE PAIK was really a person beyond the boundaries of time and space,” Jon Huffman, former studio manager of the late artist, once said. “He didn’t keep a normal human schedule. So a typical meeting with Nam June could take place at one o’clock in the morning.”
Nocturnal eccentricities aside, Paik was a true visionary whose mind raced ahead to the future. Tinkering with television sets as early as the 1960s, he essentially gave birth to a new medium that NAM JUNE PAIK IN ZURICH, 1991 we now call video art. “Like Pablo Picasso, who transformed early 20th-century art and went on to shape his particular vision of art in relation to the world,” says independent curator and scholar John Hanhardt, “Paik’s larger-thanlife career transformed art practice in the late 20th century.” Playing with electronic moving images, he found a new means of representing the world and communicating globally.
Though Paik died in 2006, his work continues to have resonance today. The artist’s estate was recently netted by Gagosian Gallery, whose current show in Hong Kong focuses on video sculptures, paintings and drawings from the last decade of his life as well as seminal works from earlier in his career.
Paik was born in Seoul in 1932 to a wealthy manufacturing family.When he was 17, his family fled the country to escape the Korean War, settling first in Hong Kong then moving to Tokyo. His early interests lay in experimental music. After a stint in Germany, he put down roots in New York City in 1964 where he became ssociated with the Dada-inspired Fluxus group and gravitated towards visual arts.
A mad-scientist-like figure, he has become known for his almost manic output. Among his first major works was the endearing Robot K-456, 1964, an awkward looking jumble of materials that was designed to walk, talk and defecate. During the ’70s and ’80s, he collaborated with the likes of David Bowie, choreographer Merce Cunningham and cellist Charlotte Moorman, who famously staged a performance wearing two small television screens that covered her breasts, a piece that Paik titled TV Brassiere for Living Sculpture, 1969.
More than just a harbinger of our current screen-obsessed existence, his spirited, often comical works sought to humanise technology. Among his most endearing pieces are those in which he anthropomorphised chunky televisions, creating small families of robots with flickering screens and old radios acting as their bellies, torsos, limbs and heads.
He is also widely recognised for his various Buddha sculptures sat in front of television sets gazing at live footage of themselves on the screen, a reflection on the relationship between technology and spirituality. “The TV Buddhas are a sophisticated [body of] work that speaks to the ways we perceive and understand the world around us, which is what Paik did during his long career,” says Hanhardt.
“Just as the Renaissance discovered in perspective a new way to paint space and time, so Paik, in his transformation of the medium of video … saw it as a means to present a fresh artistic vision in the new millennium.”