Celebrated as one of first artists to explore video as a medium, Nam June Paik’s Tate Liverpool retrospective, which ran from December 2010 to March 2011, attempted to map out the various phases of his prolific career. Critics seemed overwhelmed, both positively and negatively.

Portrait of Nam June Paik. Image from theaegon.wordpress.com.

Portrait of Nam June Paik. Image from theaegon.wordpress.com.

Click here to read more about “Nam June Paik”, the 2010-2011 Tate Liverpool retrospective.

From music to video

“Maverick” and “pioneer” are among the many names attributed to the late Korean-born artist Nam June Paik. His work is experimental and spans a range of media, from music to the digital medium. A prolific artist, he was involved with numerous art movements, such as the artist group Fluxus. Mark Sheerin of Culture 24 talks about the artist’s 1960’s output:

The former composer and Fluxus artist was always hyperactive. Archive displays recount his participation in 1960’s happenings. He charges around concert rooms and upends a piano, he smears himself in shaving foam and rice, and he runs up to an audience member called John Cage and cuts off his tie.

Starting out as a modernist composer, Paik quickly found an affinity with the visual arts. TV and video soon became his main mediums and led him to the discovery of a new art form. Alastaire Sook of The Telegraph writes:

The exhibitions in Liverpool offer a comprehensive overview of his career, leaving us in no doubt of his questing, visionary nature. Paik grasped the implications of mass communication immediately: ‘Our weapon is in media times much stronger than a painter’s brush,’ he once said.

Too much documentation?

The Tate used numerous videos and documentation of the artist’s plans and performance works to cover the evolution of Paik’s artistic process. The Independent‘s Michael Glover writes:

This full-scale retrospective at two locations in Liverpool ranges far and wide. You could say that it ranges too far and too wide. It not only gives us a comprehensive overview of Paik’s many projects around the world – born in Korea, he lived in Japan, Germany and the US – but it also documents many of those projects with far too many letters, exhibition invitations, flyers, posters and incomprehensible scribblings. What we want to see are the realised works. But despite the fact that Paik worked for more than forty years, there are fewer of these than we might imagine. Many of his projects were unrealised dreams, sketched out in puzzling sentences on the back of an envelope.

Works “bonkers or brilliant”

The Observer‘s Lauren Cumming pointed out the statement on society’s love affair with television and the media in the work Video Fish (1979-1992):

'Video Fish', 1979-1992, mixed media installation incl. live fish in aquariums, TV sets. Image taken from Saatchi.com.

'Video Fish', 1979-1992, mixed media installation incl. live fish in aquariums, TV sets. Image taken from Saatchi.com.

Half-a-dozen monitors positioned behind fish tanks transmit brilliant, Day-Glo videos through the water. Live fish swim in front of these collages. Laurie Anderson, Hitchcock, car chases, advertisements, they all flash by along with – gentle joke on goldfish memory – magnified images of the fish themselves.

The Telegraph, while acknowledging how well-distilled the artist’s aesthetic is, called the work “a parody of Eighties interior design.” Sook writes, “Whatever artistic point Paik was making with this piece was lost on me.” Other pieces seemed more accessible. Laser Cone (2001/2010) was a work that most critics enjoyed. Culture24 wrote:

The monumental Laser Cone, designed in collaboration with Norman Ballard, lets viewers simply lie back and let waves of light and colour wash over them. It is impossible not to enjoy, and equally hard to be critical about.

Some critics were enthralled by the “trippiness” of the works. The Independent‘s Charles Darwent writes:

When Paik said that the medium was the medium, he signalled his intention to use television as a painter uses paint, to appeal to something more than the brain, to captivate the eye.

Homage to Moon

Paik was fearless when it came to exploring how far he could go with video. The Guardian wraps up their review by emphasising this medium as the focal point of Paik’s practice:

'Moon is the Oldest TV', 1965-1992, installation, 12 to 17 black and white televisions, silent, 12 to 17 magnets. Image from flickr.com/photos/espacioft.

'Moon is the Oldest TV', 1965-1992, installation, 12 to 17 black and white televisions, silent, 12 to 17 magnets. Image from flickr.com/photos/espacioft.

It is often hard to deduce his attitudes from his art. Overall, the mood is celebratory. But then one comes upon an exquisite calligraphic painting cut up to accommodate a tiny screen jump-cutting violently from one TV clip to the next – as if to ask whether they can ever coexist. In the early 60s, Paik wondered whether the cathode ray tube would replace the canvas. He came to believe otherwise, and at its greatest, his own art marries the two. The most beautiful work in Liverpool is technically a moving image, but it presents a mesmerising still life: a glowing disc of light transformed into an object of contemplation. The title of the work is an image too: Moon Is the Oldest TV.

Associated events included a conference at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) which examined the future of new media art and a Tate breakfast seminar with the retrospective’s curator, Sook Kyung-Lee, and others.


Related Topics: video art, museum showsKorean artists, UK art venues

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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