Nam June Paik was a multimedia artist and member of Fluxus whose innovation with digital and video media earned him the title ‘father of video art.’ His experimental, tongue-in-cheek work was rooted in avant-garde performance art and music and continues to inspire artists today. It meditated on the vast network of future telecommunications, coining the term ‘electronic superhighway’ in 1974. Here is an in-depth look at the artist’s life and career, and how he became an icon of video art.
Nam June Paik’s Early Life
Nam June Paik was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1932, as the youngest of five siblings. He was trained in classical piano throughout his childhood. In his late teenage years, his family moved from Korea to Hong Kong and later Japan as a result of the Korean War. Paik attended the University of Hong Kong and graduated in 1956 with a Bachelor’s of Arts, after studying aesthetics and musical composition. He wrote his main thesis on a Jewish-Austrian composer named Arnold Schoenberg, who was highly influential in the German Expressionist movement, in spite of his music being banned by the Nazi Party during the rule of the Third Reich.
Nam June Paik’s musical interest led him to West Germany in the late 1950s, where the artistic avant-garde was in full swing. Musicians, artists, and writers were all pushing the boundaries of their crafts in unprecedented ways in response to the socio-political upheaval of the early twentieth century. It was here that Nam June Paik became acquainted with John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others. Each of these artists would contribute something critical to Paik’s artistic vision going forward. Cage would contribute his commitment to random acts of creation, Stockhausen his interest in electronic art, and Beuys his preference towards elaborate performance.
Through these artists (and others not mentioned here), Nam June Paik became involved in the Fluxus movement. The Fluxus movement is an artistic movement that spans all disciplines, focusing on the discipline and process of making the art as much as the art product itself. Fluxus also centers the experience of the viewer, often crafting elaborate new ways to engage the viewer’s thoughts and senses. The practices are often interdisciplinary, engaging everything from traditional art forms such as painting and classical music to urban planning and experimental theatre. Fluxus emerged from early-twentieth-century Dada art, expanding upon the anti-art concepts developed by Dada leaders such as Marcel Duchamp.
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Some of the other artists affiliated with the Fluxus movement include Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, and Wolf Vostell. Although their creations often differed greatly from each others’, the Fluxus movement is known for being an idea-sharing community based on friendship and expansive collaboration. Kaprow’s large-scale accumulations influenced Vostell’s massive gathering performances, the themes of which in turn influenced Beuys, and vice versa. Paik’s influence within this group was to be unique, however, in its focus on the use of electronics, and specifically televisions.
Early Video Art
Paik received his first major exhibition in 1963, in a private home in Wuppertal. In this exhibition, titled Exposition of Music — Electronic Television, Paik arranged no less than four pianos, twelve television sets, magnets, an ox head, and other prepared sound devices. Borrowing from John Cage, the four pianos were ‘prepared,’ a method in which various objects are set upon the piano strings in order to alter the sounds produced when the keys are struck. The images on the televisions were altered by strong magnets — when placed on or near the TV, the magnets would warp the projection of the image in shape or color, often in unpredictable ways. Riffing on Cage’s ‘prepared pianos,’ Paik would call these TVs ‘prepared televisions.’ Atypical display or alteration of pre-existing objects was a common theme in the Fluxus movement, as it encouraged new consideration of everyday items.
At the time of his German installation, Nam June Paik did not own much video equipment and wasn’t able to record his own footage for the show. As a result, the videos shown on the televisions were live broadcasts, warped by the magnets as they played, their contexts altered by the various sound machines in the rooms. As West Germany only had one public broadcast TV channel at the time of Paik’s exhibition, the hours of the show were restricted to 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM each day, for ten days straight.
Even in light of these restrictions, the show was a resounding hit, described by attendees as more of an immersive, environmental experience than a simple showing of artworks. Paik distinguished himself as a master of augmenting reality and opened the gateway to a new method of crafting perception.
Nam June Paik Moves To New York City
One year after his show in West Germany, Paik moved to New York City. Successful though he had been, Paik was interested in combining the various elements of his work more smoothly. His interest in music never fading, he began collaborating with Charlotte Moorman. Moorman was classically trained as a cellist, but after receiving a master’s degree from Julliard School of Music in 1957, she became interested in the avant-garde music and arts scene in New York City. Her close friend and roommate Yoko Ono introduced Moorman to some key members of the Fluxus movement, and from there Moorman became involved with Nam June Paik.
Paik and Moorman would complete multiple performance pieces together, in which Moorman’s musical performance was combined with Paik’s experimentation with electronic video technology. In their most famous collaboration, Opera Sextronique, Moorman played cello topless while utilizing Paik’s video sculptures around her. There was pushback due to Moorman’s nudity in the performance piece, and two years later, the duo would collaborate again in response. This follow-up piece was titled TV Bra for Living Sculpture and featured Charlotte Morman again playing the cello topless, but this time wearing a bra made of two tiny televisions in order to cover her breasts.
Much of Nam June Paik’s work relied not only on his own thought but also on the technology available to him. Each year provided new tools with which to create his work. Within five years of Paik’s first exhibition, the first VCR recording TV was released, and then the first handheld VCR recorder.
Like many other Fluxus artists, Nam June Paik was very interested in the concepts of Buddhism, and Buddhist teachings influenced many aspects of his work. Concepts such as meditation and contemplation of the self are reflected in works like TV Buddha, in which a stone Buddha head faces a TV screen playing back a live video of the Buddha head itself. This mechanical introspection combines Buddhist themes with the contradictory nature of media perception and the crafted image, the true self and the digital falsehood as one cohesive unit.
This integration was a huge part of the purpose of Nam June Paik’s work — utilizing emerging video media in order to question the nature of reality in a technologically advancing world. And Paik was not lacking in knowledge regarding emerging technology. He is widely credited with coining the term “information superhighway” in a proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation entitled “Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away.” In this proposal, he speculated about the emergence of a global video-sharing network and an internet-type telecommunications entity, among other things.
Not limited to religion, Paik also enjoyed using video art to manipulate experiences of time and place. In Bye Bye Kipling, Paik collaborated with broadcast centers in Japan to create a dual television broadcast, bringing together the east and the west through satellite connection (as well as intermixing of traditional Japanese and western media). As were most artists involved in the Fluxus movement, one of Nam June Paik’s goals in the use of video media was breaking down barriers that separate communities, using the seemingly limitless span of digital connection to transcend existing socio-political borders.
Nam June Paik’s Lasting Impact
As evidenced by the broad spectrum of experimentations throughout his career, Nam June Paik’s talents were not limited to video artwork. His portfolio included, by the end of his career, everything from immersive installations, to musical composition and performance, to mixed media sculpture, to new age video work. His wide scope of interests led him to get involved with artists all around the globe, in America, Germany, Japan, and otherwise. His bold thinking and deep interest in video media helped him to revolutionize the technology, and some of Paik’s writings and creations were critical to the progress of digital video technology. Paik’s passion for early digital media shifted the attention of those he met towards the medium as well and helped Fluxus to be deemed one of the founding movements of digital media and video art.
On January 1st of 1984, Nam June Paik organized what was arguably one of the high points of his career — a New Year’s Day broadcast entitled Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. The broadcast, titled as a cheeky response to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, connected Paris, Germany, and South Korea to bring a diverse palette of art performances to the people. The broadcast celebrated the connection and joy that digital media had brought to the world, featuring a piece by John Cage, another by Charlotte Morgan, and performances from Oingo Boingo and the Thompson Twins.
Nam June Paik could not have possibly predicted the totality of the advancement of video media when he used his first television set in 1963. However, his love for the media led him to push the media past its natural end, invent new ways of thinking and using video, and even to develop new technology along the way. He earned the title ‘the father of video art,’ but he was also on the forefront of interdisciplinary creation in the worlds of art, science, and mass media. Paik’s forward-thinking mentality impacted everyone he collaborated with, and his ideas (whether artistic, scientific, musical or otherwise) helped to shape the very world we live in now. Without Nam June Paik’s influence, the world would be a very different place.