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NAM JUNE PAIK (Korea, Seoul 1932-2006 / act: New York)

Nam June Paik Nam June Paik (20 July 1932 - 29 January 2006) was a Korean-born American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered to be the first video artist. He may have been the author of the phrase "Information Superhighway", which, according to his own account, he used in a Rockefeller Foundation paper in 1974 [The New Media Reader, 2003, p.227].

Born in Seoul during the Japanese occupation, Paik had four older brothers and a father who owned a major textile manufacturing firm. As he was growing up, he was trained as a classical pianist. In 1950, Paik and his family had to flee from their home in Korea, during the Korean War. His family first fled to Hong Kong, but later moved to Japan, for reasons unknown. Six years later he graduated from the University of Tokyo where he wrote a thesis on the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Paik then moved to Germany to study the history of music at Munich University. While studying in Germany, Paik met the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and the conceptual artists Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell who inspired him to work in the field of electronic art. [Christiane Paul 2008, p. 14-15]

Paik then began participating in the Neo-Dada art movement, known as Fluxus, which was inspired by the composer John Cage, and his use of everyday sounds and noises in his music. He made his big debut at an exhibition known as Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, in which he scattered televisions everywhere, and used magnets to alter or distort their images.

In 1964, Paik moved to New York, and began working with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, to combine his video, music, and performance. In the work TV Cello, the pair stacked televisions on top one another, so that they formed the shape of an actual cello. When Moorman drew her bow across the "cello", images of both her playing, and images of other cellists playing appeared on the screens. In 1965, Sony introduced the Portapak (Though it is said that Paik had one similar before Sony released theirs) . With this, Paik could both move and record things, for it was the first portable video and audio recorder. From there, Paik became an international celebrity, known for his creative and entertaining works. [Ibid p.21]

In a notorious 1967 incident, Charlotte Moorman was arrested for going topless while performing in Paik's Opera Sextronique. Two years later, in 1969, they performed TV Bra for Living Sculpture, in which Charlotte wore a bra with small TV screens over her breasts. Paik developed the idea of an "Electronic Superhighway" as early as 1974 in his text "Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society" [Media Art Net]. Many of Paik's early works and writings are collected in a volume edited by Judson Rosebush titled Nam June Paik: Videa 'n' Videology 1959-1973, published by the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, in 1974.

In another work, Something Pacific (1986), a statue of a sitting Buddha faces its image on a closed circuit television. (The piece is part of the Stuart Collection of public art at the University of California, San Diego.) Another piece, Positive Egg, displays a white egg on a black background. In a series of video monitors, increasing in size, the image on the screen becomes larger and larger, until the egg itself becomes an abstract, unrecognizable shape. In Video Fish, from 1975, a series of aquariums arranged in a horizontal line contain live fish swimming in front of an equal number of monitors which show video images of other fish.

Paik's 1995 piece Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, on permanent display at the Lincoln Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is a stunning example of his cultural criticism. With this piece, Paik offers up his commentary about an American culture obsessed with television, the moving image, and bright shiny things.

Paik was also known for making robots out of television sets. These were constructed using pieces of wire and metal, but later Paik used parts from radio and television sets. A retrospective of Paik's work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 1982. During the New Year's Day celebration in January 1, 1984, he aired Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a live link between WNET New York, Centre Pompidou Paris, and South Korea. With the participation of John Cage, Salvador Dalí, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, George Plimpton, and other artists, Paik showed that George Orwell's Big Brother hadn't arrived. In 1986, Paik created the work Bye Bye Kipling, a tape that mixed live events from Seoul, South Korea, Tokyo, Japan and New York, USA. Two years later, in 1988 he further showed his love for his home with a piece called The more the better, a giant tower made entirely of 1003 monitors for the Olympic Games being held at Seoul.

In the period 1979-1996 Paik was appointed professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In 1996, Paik had a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. A final retrospective exhibition of his work entitled "The Worlds of Nam June Paik" was held in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, integrating the unique space of the museum into the exhibition itself. This coincided with a downtown gallery showing of video artworks by his wife Shigeko Kubota, mainly dealing with his recovery from the stroke. In 2001 Paik received the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, International Sculpture Center. Nam June Paik died on 29 January 2006, in Miami, Florida, due to natural causes.

Public collections that hold artwork by Nam June Paik include: The American College of Greece, Athens; Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Art Museum of the Americas, Washington DC; Daimler-Chrysler Collection, Berlin, Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii; Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Germany; Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany; Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Museum Wiesbaden, Germany; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece; Palazzo Cavour, Turin, Italy; Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; Schleswig-Holstein Museums, Germany; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; Stuart Collection, University of California, San Diego; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

[Megakles Rogakos 02/2010]

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