Paik, Nam June

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PAIK, Nam June

(b. 20 July 1932 in Seoul, Korea), performance and video artist who, during the 1960s, transformed the formal properties of television and video into an electronic art form by using combinations of music, actions, images, and objects.

Little is known about Paik's early years. While in high school, he discovered the post-romantic, atonal music of the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1949 the war between the communists and noncommunists in Korea compelled Paik's family to relocate from Seoul to Hong Kong, where the seventeen-year-old attended Rayden School. A move to Tokyo in 1950 presented Paik the opportunity to study music, art history, and aesthetics at Tokyo University (1952–1956). There he submitted his thesis on Schoenberg, theories of serial composition, and Western modernism.

In 1956 Paik moved to Germany to further investigate the traditions of European music at the University of Munich and the Academy of Music in Freiberg. He met Karlheinz Stockhausen, a vanguard German composer of electronic compositions, at a New Music event, as well as the American innovator John Cage, who invented the "prepared piano" and believed that all noise was music. Inspired by these musical mavericks, Paik in 1959 explored the electronic studio of a Cologne radio station, experimenting with the equipment to produce various sounds.

Paik's transformation from audio artist to video artist was motivated by his involvement in the burgeoning scene of "Happenings" that grew out of the avant-garde culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He became part of the Fluxus anti-art movement, and was influenced by its founder, George Maciunas. Experimenting with audiotape, Paik recorded piano, screaming, classical music, and sound effects, then edited them into an aural collage. Paik's invitation to join the Fluxus Group came when Maciunas witnessed a performance of one of Paik's cut-up sound montages. As the tape played, Paik threw beans at the ceiling, covered his face with a roll of paper, screamed, cried, and hurled the paper into the audience while two tape recorders blared bursts of radio news. He smeared shaving cream onto his hair, face, and suit, poured flour over his head, and then jumped into a bathtub. Later, Paik played a salon piece on the piano, then banged his head repeatedly on the keyboard. Paik quickly developed a reputation as the "wild man" of the Fluxus movement.

During the early 1960s Paik continued to explore the outer realms of music, performance, and interactivity. Symphony for 20 Rooms (1961) involved audio collages interspersed with players kicking objects around a room. In One for Violin Solo (1962), Paik raised a violin over his head and smashed it to the ground. In 1963 visitors to the Exposition of Music, Paik's first single-artist show, interacted with performances, actions, and objects located in different rooms. Paik contributed to the anti-art movement of the "prepared piano" by decorating the instrument with barbed wire, dolls, photographs, and a bra.

Paik quickly became frustrated by the limitations of audio expression and introduced increasingly spontaneous actions into his audio work. In 1963 he created an installation that was both pre-video and pre-digital. For Random Access, strips of audiotape were secured to the exhibition space walls. When the tapes were rubbed with a magnetic tape head, they produced sounds. In March of that year Paik devoted himself to research into video. His early work in the new medium began as an installation at the Exposition of Music–Electronic Television. Paik placed thirteen television sets in non-traditional positions, on their backs and sides. He manipulated the horizontal and vertical controls, breaking the compositional form of the standardized television image.

Zen for TV (1963) featured a television set placed on its side, displaying a horizontal line transmission while the other sets faced the floor. For Rembrandt Automatic (1963), Paik positioned a TV face-down so its flickering light seeped out and caused reflections on the floor. The results altered the viewer's attitudes toward television solely as a deliverer of entertainment and information. Point of Light (1963) featured a television wired to a radio pulse generator. When the viewer turned the volume knob, the light in the screen's center grew larger, communicating the fact that a video image could be modified and controlled by the participant. Paik experimented further with participation television. He wired a microphone into a set, and when a viewer spoke, the voice was translated into explosive point-of-light patterns.

In 1965 Paik met the experimental filmmaker Jud Yalkut, who recorded Paik's video images on film with his handheld 16-mm Bolex camera. In turn, Paik incorporated Yalkut's film footage into his videotapes.

At his first one-man show as a video artist at the New School for Social Research in New York City, Paik's Magnet TV (1965) utilized a magnetic force to alter a video image. Later, he used a degausser, an industry tool employed to erase videotape, to creatively manipulate video images.

Also in 1965, the first Sony portable half-inch videotape recorder and player became available to consumers. This development expanded the reach of television and put the medium into the hands of artists such as Paik, who bought his first video camera at the Liberty Music Shop in New York City. His first recording was in the store, where he captured the repetitive action of buttoning and unbuttoning his coat on videotape.

Paik's most significant collaboration was with the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman, with whom he participated in the historic TV as a Creative Medium Show at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City in 1969. An all but topless Moorman played cello wearing a bra that housed two small television monitors designed by Paik. The live performance was a scandal and further demonstrated the fact that television was a versatile and diversified medium connected to life, not just an impassive object to be watched at home.

Paik altered the color of his work with the Paik–Abe Video Synthesizer, which he developed with the engineer Shuga Abe in 1964. They refined their invention at WGBH in Boston, as well as two New York facilities, WNET-TV in New York City and the Experimental Television Center in Binghamton.

During the 1960s Paik was responsible for the introduction of a new artistic medium into global culture. His bold experiments inspired a cadre of video artists in the 1970s, many of whom were first-generation video creators. In the new millennium, video art is an established and accepted medium, and Paik continues to exercise his protean talents to explore the electronic and digital properties of the medium he helped create. His work has evolved in size and scope as sculpture installations, environments, and images.

John G. Handhardt, The Worlds of Nam June Paik (2000), is a comprehensive overview of Paik's work. Aspects of his career in video art are examined in Wulf Herzogenrath, Nam June Paik:Fluxus, Video (1983); Edith Decker-Phillips, Paik Video (1988); and Nam June Paik, Nam June Paik: Video Works, 1963–88: 29 September–11 December 1988, Hayward Gallery (1988).

Vincent LoBrutto