A garden with peeking television tubes, a towering robot figure made of screens and piano keys, a Buddha statue watching itself being filmed by a CCTV camera – throughout the 20th century, Nam June Paik had offered different ways of looking at technology and its place in the world.
The founder of video art
“I would be happy if I would be remembered for that reason … for having put out some nonsense on American TV, you know?” Paik said in an interview. “And I don’t want more credit or less credit.” Yet today he is widely recognized as the founder of video art as well as one of the world’s first global artists and a key figure in the avant-garde movement.
His keen exploration of all things electronic media resulted in playful, trailblazing works. Born in Korea and having lived in Japan, Germany and the US, Paik envisioned an ‘electronic superhighway’ in the 1970s that could connect different places around the world, which later manifested as the internet.
Having trained as a classical pianist, Paik was also intent on subverting perceptions around music. He was a frequent collaborator with John Cage, the composer behind the infamous ‘silent’ composition 4’33”. In John Cage Robot II, Paik highlighted Cage’s idea that ambient sounds may constitute music through eleven screens that dominate the sense of sight but provide no sound, leaving the ears to the buzz of adjacent works and passersby.
Paik also turned a stack of three cathode ray TVs into a cello and created the automated robot Robot K-456 – named after a Mozart’s piano concerto – that can sing, wave its hands and even urinate.
A robot named after a concerto
“Instead of something that’s rather serious or a sombre as we as we normally associate with classical music, he subverts it in the sense where he makes it rather comical,” says Roy Ng, curator at National Gallery Singapore where the retrospective Nam June Paik: The Future is Now is being held.
The robot was intentionally made to appear “shoddy” and “rather imperfect”, says Ng. “That sort of alludes to our own sense of humanity as well because you know, we are also imperfect beings … and this robot is just like one of us.”
The humour and the humanization of electronics are part of Paik’s optimism with technology, even in the age of the Cold War where technology was seen as a tool to serve the purposes of warfare.
The idea of future obsolescence didn’t seem to escape Paik. In Zen for Film, a silent 16mm film devoid of images, audiences can witness the scratches that have accumulated on the tape since its creation in 1965. “The projector itself becomes humanised,” Ng says. “It’s subjective decay, just like a person.”
And technologies do die out. Art critic Adrian Searle describes Paik’s works as “a show of relics and remnants” in the twenty-first century, because “television is almost over”.
A relationship with emerging technologies
But Ng says Paik’s ideas of our relationship with emerging technologies remain very much pertinent today. He refers to Egg Grows, a work that captures the image of a real egg through a video camera before transmitting it to eight monitors increasing in size.
“When you look at the reproduction of the egg that’s being shown on TV screens, these have almost overshadowed the original egg,” Ng says. “Isn’t this representative of our postmodern cultural condition today, where we are just totally inundated with reproductions? Our access to the origin of truth itself, of reality, has to be mediated by copies.”
He points to our interview, which is being conducted through Microsoft Teams. “What you see before you is not the actual physical me … Are we not dematerializing ourselves in the process? This process of dematerialization has been accelerated over the past two years because of the COVID 19 pandemic.”
Having died in 2006, Paik did not live through the times of Metaverse and video conferencing. “But he was quite a prescient artist in trying to think about the implications of technology during his time,” Ng says. “The questions that he had on technology are still very pertinent and are still very relevant today.”
From March 18-27, the Gallery is offering a Last Chance Open House to welcome all visitors to catch the exhibition for FREE. This will be everyone’s final opportunity to catch the international travelling exhibition as it wraps up its closing act at National Gallery Singapore by 27 March 2022.
For more information about Nam June Paik, go to www.paikstudios.com. For more information about the National Gallery of Singapore, go to www.nationalgallery.sg. You can also follow the gallery on Instagram at @nationalgallerysingapore.
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