Ana Brdar on Paik Nam June – Pioneer of Video Art
The Korean-born artist Paik Nam June is often hailed as the “father of video art” for his visually intriguing feats that combine highbrow aesthetics with media, pop culture and the avant-garde, technology and philosophy, a blend that drove him to create a thought-provoking body of work that has been inspiring artists to this day.
Born in Seoul in 1932, during Japanese occupation of Korea, Paik Nam June and his family had to flee their home during the Korean War, first moving to Hong Kong, then Japan. Paik studied aesthetics at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote his final thesis on the expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. He later continued his education in West Germany, where he met a number of influential artists, among them composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as the founder of the Fluxus movement, George Maciunas.
As of 1962, Paik had become associated with Fluxus and held his first independent exhibition in 1963, titled Exposition of Electronic Music — Electronic Television. By 1970, Paik had developed a color video synthesizer together with electronics engineer Shuya Abe, a device that was able to blend and manipulate moving images from different sources, which helped him add a completely new dimension into the sphere or sculpture and installation art. It was in New York that Paik also met cellist Charlotte Moorman, with whom he would collaborate on numerous groundbreaking performances.
One of the most important features of Paik’s work is the reinvention of the television set, which he appropriated as an artistic tool in order to create new avant-garde forms, usually by stacking the electronic devices in shape of a robot, musical instruments or everyday household objects. In the 1970s, Paik became increasingly interested in satellites, a research that resulted in creation of Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, an international satellite installation that linked WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as broadcasters in Germany and his native South Korea. Paik gave another nod to his homeland in his somewhat critical piece titled The More The Better (pictured below), an enormous media tower statue composed of 1,003 monitors that transmitted programs of television stations from 12 different countries at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
Paik is also credited with the being the first one to use the term “electronic super highway”, anticipating a future in which the world will be highly interconnected through means of technology. The piece which illustrates this notion, titled Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii 1995-96 (featured picture), features a map of the United States made using brightly colored neon cables and an immense 51-channel video construction.
Paik’s immense body of work undoubtedly influenced an entire generation of video and performance artists. With the advent of internet and social media, riddled with fleeting images and bite-sized information, it seems that Paik’s art, together with the social commentary it evokes, are relevant now more than ever.