Asia Society holds the first retrospective of Nam June Paik in New York after more than a decade.

On 5 September 2014, New York’s Asia Society Museum launched Nam June Paik’s retrospective exhibition. Spanning the artist’s entire artistic career, the show explores his visionary approach to technology and the creation of innovative video and new media art.

Nam June Paik sitting in 'TV Chair', 1968/1976, in “Nam June Paik Werke, 1946–1976: Music, Fluxus, Video,” 1976. Photo credit: © Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne.

Nam June Paik sitting in ‘TV Chair’, 1968/1976, in “Nam June Paik Werke, 1946–1976: Music, Fluxus, Video,” 1976. Photo credit: © Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne.

Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot”, at Asia Society Museum until 4 January 2015, is the Korean artist’s first major New York City exhibition since his death in 2006.

The father of video art

Nam June Paik (b. 1932, Seoul), a pioneering figure in new media art, is widely considered the “father of video art”. Not only did he explore the use and application of technology in art, he also made it more approachable and closer to human experience. Since his early career days in Germany working with Fluxus to his permanent move to New York, Paik experimented with music, sound, moving image, television, transmissions and satellite communication, and robotics. His work combined performative elements with engineering and multimedia resources.

Nam June Paik, 'Reclining Buddha', 1994/2002, two-channel video installation with two 9-inch colour monitors, reclining stone Buddha, 41.9 x 52.1 x 30.5 cm. Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

Nam June Paik, ‘Reclining Buddha’, 1994/2002, two-channel video installation with two 9-inch colour monitors, reclining stone Buddha, 41.9 x 52.1 x 30.5 cm. Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

Installation view of 'TV Bra for Living Sculpture', 1975, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Installation view of ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’, 1975, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Humanising technology

Paik attempted to merge the spheres of technology and human life, ultimately aiming to “humanise” technological experience, while keeping in mind the risks of letting technology take over human life.

Paik wrote in a statement on TV Bra for a Living Scultpure (1969):

By using TV as a bra . . . the most intimate belonging of a human being, we will demonstrate the human use of technology, and also stimulate viewers . . . to look for the new, imaginative and humanistic ways of using our technology.

Nam June Paik, 'Transistor Television', 2005, permanent oil marker and acrylic paint on vintage transistor television, 31.8 x 24.1 x 40.6 cm. Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

Nam June Paik, ‘Transistor Television’, 2005, permanent oil marker and acrylic paint on vintage transistor television, 31.8 x 24.1 x 40.6 cm. Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

Michelle Yun, Asia Society’s curator of modern and contemporary art, told The Wall Street Journal:

A big point of the show and the works we selected is that he really did want to humanise technology and create a personal way to connect. [Some of the works on show] are about the risk of letting humanity be overridden by technology, and that you have to remember that humanity comes first, to build a bridge and ensure that technology doesn’t override the human instinct for the human condition.

Installation view of 'Golden Buddha', 2005, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Installation view of ‘Golden Buddha’, 2005, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Nam June Paik, Zürich, 1991. Photo credit: © Foto: Timm Rautert. Image courtesy Galerie Parrotta Contemporary Art Stuttgart/Berlin.

Nam June Paik, Zürich, 1991. Photo credit: © Foto: Timm Rautert. Image courtesy Galerie Parrotta Contemporary Art Stuttgart/Berlin.

TV as a medium

One of Paik’s longest collaborations was with avant-garde cello player Charlotte Moorman, until her death in 1991. In their performance and video artworks, Paik experimented with the potential of TV as medium.

Nam June Paik and Howard Weinberg, '“Topless Cellist” Charlotte Moorman', 1995, video, colour, sound, 29 min. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. Image courtesy Electronic Art Intermix (EAI), New York.

Nam June Paik and Howard Weinberg, ‘“Topless Cellist” Charlotte Moorman’, 1995, video, colour, sound, 29 min. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. Image courtesy Electronic Art Intermix (EAI), New York.

Their projects involved the use of TV monitors that projected images and videos while Moorman performed. Opera Sextronique (1967) became one of their most famed works, when a performing, topless Moorman was arrested for indecency. To honour her and celebrate their collaboration, Paik presented Room for Charlotte Moorman, a room installation in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993.

Installation view of 'Room for Charlotte Moorman', 1993, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Installation view of ‘Room for Charlotte Moorman’, 1993, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Nam June Paik, 'Robot K-456', 1964, twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminium profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material and control-turn out, 183 x 103 x 72 cm. Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1792.01. Photo credit: Roman März, Berlin.

Nam June Paik, ‘Robot K-456’, 1964, twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminium profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material and control-turn out, 183 x 103 x 72 cm. Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1792.01. Photo credit: Roman März, Berlin.

Robots as humans

Paik’s first robot, Robot AK-456 (1964), built with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe, had no useful function; rather, it was built to mimic humans by talking, walking and defecating beans.

Melissa Chiu commented to The Wall Street Journal:

Are robots really the future? Some of the robots he created had human functions but didn’t do much else, so they talked and walked and defecated but didn’t actually do anything as robots to help our lives. It was simply an idea to create robots to be one of us.

Installation view of 'Family of Robot', . in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Installation view of ‘Family of Robot’, 1986, in “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society Museum, New York, through January 2015. Photography is by Leise Hook/Asia Society Museum. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Family of Robot (1986) epitomises Paik’s humanisation of robots: a traditional Korean family built with vintage TVs and radios on a human scale, with no ambulatory function, but with individual characters showing through uniquely selected moving images on their TV screens.

Nam June Paik, 'Li Tai Po', 1987, 10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 colour TVs, 243.8 x 157.5 x 61 cm. Asia Society, New York: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold and Ruth Newman, 2008.2. Photo credit: © 2007 John Bigelow Taylor Photography. Image courtesy of Asia Society, New York.

Nam June Paik, ‘Li Tai Po’, 1987, 10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 colour TVs, 243.8 x 157.5 x 61 cm. Asia Society, New York: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold and Ruth Newman, 2008.2. Photo credit: © 2007 John Bigelow Taylor Photography. Image courtesy of Asia Society, New York.

Presentation of 'Good Morning Mr. Orwell', at the Kitchen Gallery, New York, on December 8, 1983. Photograph © 1983 by Lorenzo Bianda (Tegna, CH)

Presentation of ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’, at the Kitchen Gallery, New York, on December 8, 1983. Photograph © 1983 by Lorenzo Bianda (Tegna, CH)

The electronic superhighway

In a proposal for the Rockefeller Foundation in 1974, Paik coined the term “electronic superhighway”, which is considered to be a precursor of Internet’s early moniker “information superhighway”. Paik also collaborated with TV networks, and some of his work pioneered satellite communication and video art, connecting simultaneously with other locations worldwide.

Nam June Paik, Still from 'Good Morning Mr. Orwell', 1984, video, colur, sound, 38 min. Image courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Nam June Paik, Still from ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’, 1984, video, colur, sound, 38m:00s. Image courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Goodmorning Mr. Orwell (1984), a televised event in collaboration with WNET/THIRTEEN in New York and F.R. 3 in Paris, was Paik’s first major international satellite broadcast. The programme was transmitted simultaneously in France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands and the United States on 1 January 1984. It combined simultaneously broadcast footage of live programmes in New York and Paris with video interventions by the artist using his 1969 invention with Abe, the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer.

Nam June Paik, Kessler TV/WDR, Cologne, 1977. © Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne

Nam June Paik, Kessler TV/WDR, Cologne, 1977. © Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Korean artists, new media art, video art, robots, art and technology, museum shows, events in New York, picture feasts

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Brittney

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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