Outside the Box

This review of Nam June Paik at Tate Liverpool appeared in the New Statesman.

Nam June Paik with a television on his shoulderThe Korean artist Nam June Paik, who died in 2006, might be said to have invented – or at least foreseen – our media-sodden present. Paik was most likely the first artist of the 1960s to tinker with video technology, pre-empting by a few years better-known experiments by the likes of Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola. But his ideas, and the textures of the work itself, ramify beyond the now familiar realm of video art. Paik was convinced that television and video were the keys to a new internationalist consciousness, expressed not so much in Marshall McLuhan’s frictionless “global village” but in the clash of disparate images and a liberating effacement of distinctions between art and life, producer and consumer.

The ambitious double retrospective in Liverpool demonstrates the essential legacy of Paik’s art and the ultimate limitations of his quasi-utopian vision. Here are charmingly antiquated instances of his early deployment of television in the gallery, spectacular examples of his later video installations and many single-channel videos documenting collaborations with John Cage, Joseph Beuys and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Paik began his career as an avant-garde composer, and some measure of his antic humour is in evidence in the several Cage-inspired works at Tate Liverpool. His notion of the musical score stretched to include lengths of magnetic tape stuck to the manuscript, over which the listener was invited to stroke the tape head of a cassette recorder. And, in a long collaboration with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, he invented such absurdist contraptions as the “TV bra” and the “TV cello”.

Such neo-Dada shenanigans ought not to suggest that Paik was above making resonant and poetic artefacts. Quite the most impressive and oddly affecting display at Tate reproduces in part his 1963 solo exhibition “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television”, which included 13 modified TV sets. Magnet TV is a vintage set with a large industrial magnet placed on top so that the image is distorted into a gorgeous geometric whorl. For Zen for TV Paik placed a malfunctioning set, which would show only a single horizontal white line, on its side; the result is a wry piece of cathode-ray minimalism. The ultimate destination for this line of thought is Rembrandt Automatic, which consists of a set placed face down.

Some of his actual video work is equally laconic. His first monochrome experiment with a Sony Portapak, an early home-video camera, is a grainy couple of minutes of the artist buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket: a bit of repetitive business worthy of Beckett or Laurel and Hardy. The spirit of Cage (as well as Malevich and Yves Klein) is once more present in the eight-minute Zen for Film (1962): the blank white screen registers only occasional spots of degrading celluloid, like audience coughs during a performance of Cage’s 4’33”. Even a much later work such as One Candle (1989) – a camera is trained on a flickering flame and projectors on the floor split the image into primary colours – has an entrancing, Zen-derived simplicity.

But for the most part Paik’s work of the 1980s and 1990s (he was less active after a stroke in 2001) is a good deal more elaborate and, perhaps in consequence, less compelling. Having devised a “video synthesiser” in the 1970s and already experimented with live, satellite-linked remixes of global television – innovations that were well ahead of their time – he seems to have stalled when it came to translating his channel-hopping sensibility into gallery-bound objects. The massed plants and monitors of TV Garden (1974) are at once assaultive and eerie, but the comical robots made of old TVs, which he built in the mid-1980s, look regrettably like set dressings from MTV in the same era. The pioneer of video as art had been outpaced (and knowingly appropriated) by video as entertainment.

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