Nam June Paik At Tate Modern – The Optimistic Shaman Of Technology

Tate Modern presents a series of pioneering works by Nam June Paik, known as the Korean ‘father of video art’, whose installations anticipated the YouTube age, the works are on display at Tate Modern, after being acquired by the institution after a record £6 million, multi-year sponsorship deal with Korean car maker Hyundai, who has helped Tate Modern acquire nine key works by the entrepreneurial video artist, who died aged 73 in 2006.

Paik was a ground breaking artist in his day; working with radios, televisions, robotics and computers to explore humanity’s ever-changing relationship with technology. In fact the artist coined the phrase ‘Electronic Superhighway’ in a work from 1994, comprised of towering video screens where-in the artist actually imagined that computer users would one day be able to post their own clips on a “Video Common Market”. Paik actually foresaw the creation of YouTube aand other inventions.

The exhibition incorporates works spanning 40 years of the artist’s career, including some of Paik’s seminal video installations – which address contemporary issues of mass media and surveillance – the Tate Modern display incorporates the works ‘Can Car’ 1963, an early sculpture created from a tin can, an electric motor and a pair of wheels. ‘Bakelite Robot’ 2002 is a late work made by stacking vintage radios into the shape of a humanoid robot with physically embedded video.

‘Nixon’ 1965-2002, uses electromagnetic coils to warp and distort footage of former US President Richard Nixon, the artist used technology and the sculptural object to influence the footage; Paik ‘corrupts’ Nixon’s image – for the second time – but, this time. in actuality, instead of the image of public persona being warped by Nixon himself – Paik blurs the lines between science and fine artl and in doing so the artist subverts Nixon’s inaugural address of 1969, and also the President’s resignation speech of 1974 – post Watergate. Paik’s actions against the two films result in an  ‘attack’ against the state manipulation of the image.

The artist was a pioneering figure in multimedia art, and expanded the definitions and languages of his practice – and art in general. Paik added new dimensions to visual culture; through the artist’s addition of the language of film. This act was prescient of the future; where the self-created – and streamed video clip would expand exponentially via the internet to become an all pervasive aspect of contemporary culture.

The artist’s educational background in music history was the springboard to this act; which inspired the artist to explore the field of electronic art, experimenting with diverse media from television, radios, to robotics and computers to investigate the technological era’s impact on humanity; and in doing so became an influence on contemporary culture that fed into it ideas that would eventually take hold: artist reflects his surroundings; and in inimitable fashion effects the results of the experiment.

Another aspect of video culture highlighting the pervasive in a far more sinister way; was also touched on my the artist in ‘Three Eggs’ 1975-1982 is a CCTV triptych, in which an egg is watched by a video camera and transmitted live to a nearby monitor. The artist uses irony to highlight the intrusive and subjective. Paik brings together a hens egg, its live transmitted image on a nearby monitor; with the illusion of its representation via a hollow box with an egg inside of it, to seemingly mirror the transmission. The work is at one Zen Buddhist in nature, as well as being a ‘closed circuit’ –  in which the image is trapped; confined to a cyclical loop – a signifier of our disturbingly intrusive surveillance age.

Alongside his sculptures and installations, a group of the artist’s works on paper have been donated to Tate by the artist’s family. These are drawings in pencil, pastel and ink, and offer an insight into Paik’s working methods, and the development of his ground-breaking and experimental ideas. many of which include the motif of a rectangular form reminiscent of the image on a television set of the period; with a v-shape resembling an old TV aerial. Often poetic in imagination; Paik’s televisual rectangles take flight like a flock of birds – v-shapes become wings – evocative of the artist’s belief in the shamanistic power of the medium’s communication to the masses, as a vehicle for the progression of humanity.

Finally Paik’s ‘Bakelite Robot’ 2002 consists of a robot figure constructed from old Bakelite radios with video imagery embedded each speaker. The work is colourful, playful, and evocative of an early period of global communication; the work has a naive quality – a children’s toy built from devices designed to disseminate information – a reflection of a period in history which viewed technology with hope and wonder.

Paik’s work on display expresses the desire for technology to be a positive influence on cultural development – giving insights into the progressive ideas of an artist who had foreseen the role of communication technologies in our lives; and acted as a kind of playful Beuysian technological shaman espousing the use of systems of communication as tools for the betterment of culture; with a twentieth century optimism.

Nam June Paik Open from 3 November 2014 Tate Modern, Level 4

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 photos Artlyst all rights reserved

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