“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.”
-Nam June Paik
Three cameras point toward the audience. All feeds are projected at an angle on a wall ahead. The three silhouettes are each a different shade—red, green, or blue—the primary colors of the video age. The figures cross over each other forming new colors and forms as they overlap. The images follow the movements of the viewer-turned-subject with the slight lag of a live broadcast feed. In the Nam June Paik exhibit on now at The Asia Society, dozens line up to stare at their own digital figures, captured and broadcast in front of them. Guards stand nearby, reminding visitors that photos and selfies are not allowed.
Nam June Paik is an artist who has earned his title of pioneer. Paik, a Korean student of fine arts in Japan and Germany before eventually settling in the US, began experimenting with video media in the early 1960s. Video was a new, cheap and easy way to shoot and broadcast footage instantly. As opposed to film, video’s far cruder footage could be replayed instantly. Without the pricy development, common consumers could record footage, while broadcasting allowed video to be streamed directly from cameras to digital screens, revolutionizing TV production. It would be decades before video’s broader potential was technologically feasible. But already in the early 60s, Paik’s work demonstrated knowledge of the new medium’s grander implications for visual culture and human relations.
Before millions walked around with cameras in their back pockets, and before gazing at digital screens became a common part of the day to day, Paik’s work already spoke to both the exciting potentials and unavoidable follies of the video screen. This current exhibit showcases the opposing sides of the implications of video that Paik explored: the human and the machine, the spiritual and the narcissistic. Paik’s diverse work resonates in both its critical and celebratory elements. The chronologically curated exhibit emphasizes the relevance of the contradictions that Paik’s work forces us to consider.
On view are Paik’s first video “sculptures” – old TV sets manipulated by large magnets to create abstract digital forms. Such early work already anticipates the element of performance that video recording would come to influence. Video’s simple and “unmanipulated” nature would influence a generation of artists like Richard Serra, Peter Campus, and Vito Acconci. Paik’s own collaboration with musician Charlotte Moorman marked video’s influence on performance itself. Moorman, a professional cellist, did a series of performances with Paik. On view at the exhibit is the infamous “TV Bra”, where Moorman performed for a crowd naked with two small TV sets strapped to her bare chest.
They’re fun pieces to appreciate; however as with all performance they’re hard to enjoy fully in a static museum environment. However, entertainment at Paik’s exhibit is certainly not lacking. Part of the greatness of Paik’s work is that it manages to convey the great sense of humor the artist had.[MR1] A room upstairs includes a projection of Paik’s January 1st, 1984 international art transmission, “Good Morning Mr. Orwell”. The video is a hypnotic and nightmarish, mid-80s-style art-celebrity talk show[JN2] with artists like John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass and more. The image of Allen Ginsberg belting out a song about meditation and nuclear fallout, while playing the accordion in a four piece folk band, is a good indicator of the video’s strangeness. Surrounding the wall-sized projection of this insanity are Paik’s peaceful TV Buddhas, gazing at their own blown up, broadcasted faces on screens ahead. The potential for video’s spiritual peace and sensory excess coexist here in a telling way.
All that said, the central objects of the show would have to be Paik’s robots. Asia Society brought together a collection of Paik’s rarely exhibited humanoid machines—cheap sci-fi-ish constructions made of TVs and found objects. They’re large and ugly, and threatening in a way. They’re interesting objects in their own right, but here they show Paik’s role as an artist—an innovator putting a face on technologies that in a lot of ways are alien, ugly, and threatening to our nature. They are strikingly prescient objects. A graphic next to these works displays a timeline of Paik’s work, alongside one of relevant technological advancements including the creation of Google, Facebook and Youtube. Paik’s work proves interestingly relevant in the hyper-saturated world of images and screens of today. His practice and efforts to find the human in the robotic and mechanical mark an important and groundbreaking artistic effort. The exhibit at the Asia Society displays the important dualities that Paik’s practice points to–the Zen in excess, the human in the mechanical. These are problematic that become increasingly relevant in an age where our social and visual relations are more and more defined by our technologies. Increasingly the push against these factors has increased, but Paik’s exhibit asks us to find something different in these problems: joy.