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Nam June Paik and the Encounter Between the East and the West



MFA candidate at the division of theater of the Korean
National University of the Arts.


Nam June Paik has been debatably, after the death of John Cage and Joseph Beuys, the most significant ‘avant-garde’ artist of our era. He had been an important subject in the discipline of art history and cultural history of the west until his recent death. 
Paik’s art and thoughts have had a worldwide influence.  He made cultural change to the very idea of traditional art objects and the academy of the art.  He transformed the instruments and the means of art making through performance and renewed music and transformed electronic image of film and video into new forms of creative expression. 
Every nation claims Nam June Paik in a specific way. His work was included in the German pavilion of the 1993 Venice Biennale, his retrospective was held at center Pompidou. The U.S, South America, Japan, Italy, the whole world has honored Paik’s journey. 

‘Terrorist from
Korea’, ‘the cultural nomad’- Nam June Paik. The story of his career and journey as an artist is really special. Born in Seoul in 1932, he went to Japan in 1952 where he studied aesthetics and art history. In the late 50s he went to Germany, where he continued his study in new music composition and performance and participated in the avant-garde movement collaborating with John Cage and George Macinaus, joining Fluxus. He visits New York in 1964 where he settles and works until today.

Here is a description by Stockhausen of one of Paik’s early performances in Wuppertal, Germany, “He was sobbing softly, then he pressed the paper against his eyes which became wet with his tears, he screamed and he suddenly threw the roll of paper into the audience, he was playing his new type of tape recording, a collaged tape with children’s voices, scream of women, news from radio, tunes of classical music, electric sound etc. And dived completely into under water, jumped wet to the piano, and began to play the keyboard.”  Another performance in 1975, ‘Violin with String’: Paik is dragging the violin to the street taking the musical instrument out of the concert hall into the performer’s space.

It was in 1963, in Gallery Parnass in
Wuppertal, Germany, where he had his first one-artist’s show called ‘Exhibition of Music-Electronic Television’.  For the first time in the history of art, he turned the electronic instrument television into an instrument of art making, which event gave birth to video art. In ‘Participation TV(1963)’, the viewer can speak into the microphone where the sounds transform the images on the screen, which put the TV out of the consumerist context, changing the subject-object relation between the TV and the viewer. The ‘TV clock(1963)’ and ‘the Moon is the oldest TV(1965)’: twelve manipulated color televisions show the moon in every stage of its cycle and bring in the factor of temporality into the arts, which had been mainly about composition until then. ‘TV Bra for living sculpture(1970) with Charlotte Moorman’: where the electronic instrument becomes a piece of clothing for the human body. In the video ‘Global Grove(1973)’, he collages the images of his avant-garde collaborators such as John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Merce Cunningham etc in his unique way of editing. In ‘TV garden(1974)’, the televisions are mingled with plants and nature is joined with technology. In ‘TV Buddha(1974)’, the Buddha is sitting in front of the monitor reflecting on himself. In ‘Good morning Mr. Orwell(1984)’, his first satellite performance, two performances in New York and Paris were broadcast live to the whole world. The theme of the next satellite performance ‘Bye Bye Kipling (1986)’ was the encounter between the east and the west, where global celebrities in different countries shook their hands and where marathoners in Seoul ran to the live music performance in New York. 

The issues he engaged in his art: in his early performances, he showed a new way of perceiving things in an innovative method, by breaking taboos and surprising the audience. The TV series in the 60s and 70s are praised for having grafted human aspects to science and for having humanized technology. The reinterpretation of the overpower and stiffness of TV has launched a dialogue between art, technology and human beings. Using the video camera in art-making, he predicts that ‘the TV monitor will replace the canvas some day’, whereupon every image in everyday life would become a potential source of art and through which media would become accessible to all. One of the major themes regarding his work is technology and nature such as in the ‘TV garden’ where technology and nature is harmonized. The global satellite broadcast shows are revealing his dream of bringing the east and the west into dialogue. The idea that coherently penetrates his art from the 60s to his recent works is acknowledged to be communication, a dialogue between science/technology and human beings/nature/the arts, and between the east and the west.

Going through Nam June Paik’s art pieces themselves, I came to know about the scale and profundity of his world: his creativity as an artist, insight as a thinker, cleverness as a strategy maker and warmness as a human being, upon which I did not dare to comment on his work. Again, I felt this reluctance to analyze and write about art, saying that I prefer (just) to do it or at least to appreciate it.

Screening selected art critiques on his work, both of the west and the east(mainly of Koreans or Korea-related Asians), I was confused. It was not the rather banal reiteration on the meaning of his work mentioned above, the meaning of his reinterpretation of subject-object relation, which turned over western technology and thoughts that I could not understand, or with which I could not identify myself. It was also that most of the writers on his work were more or less agreeing on such meanings. What confused me was the valuation that Nam June Paik has brought the east and the west into dialogue, that he has realized a cultural exchange and union of the east and the west what was a significant subject mainly in the east.

So many cultures have become part of Paik’s work and that is why there exists a precondition of Nam June Paik’s art: two heterogeneous places, the east and the west. Geographically, politically, culturally different cultures of the east and the west encounter and collide in his world. How do they encounter and how do they collide? Is it a dialogue between the east and the west that is happening in his art world?

Interestingly, the majority of the Korean critiques, scholars etc. whose works I happened to read, were engaging this subject intensively, whereby in the U.S and
Europe, it seemed to be a less burning subject if compared to the east. Nam June Paik himself once mentioned in a dialogue with Allen Ginsberg that his minority complex as an Asian or Korean derives him to complete the very complicated cybernetics art. Maybe it is the same ‘complex’ that makes the former enthusiastic about it whereby the artistic, literary celebrities in the west can get along with doing it only to a necessary level.  

Frequently, when trying to find a counterpoint between the east and the west in Paik’s work, people indicate concrete marks of it. It is not difficult to perceive signs of eastern cultural tradition being represented in Nam June Paik’s art pieces: the frequent use of Korean or Chinese letters casually scribbled on his pieces, the Buddha and Zen series, the juxtaposition of western pop stars and avant-garde artists with the national living treasure, Korean zither player Hwang Byung Ki and Shaman Choi Hee Ya in ‘Bye Bye Kipling(1986)’ or Paik himself clothed as a Korean shaman in a ritual in memory of Joseph Beuys(1990). Additionally, the theme nature and technology in his work, is often referred to as suggesting a clue in finding a balance between the narcissistic western culture submerging into technology and the alternative ecological naturalism of the traditional east. ‘The TV clock’ or ‘the Moon…TV’ are often explained as representing the eastern perception of time, where the moment and eternity is identical. His attachment to John Cage is assumed to be to a certain degree because of Cage’s infatuation in Zen Buddhism. In such and such a way, people connect his work to Buddhism, Shamanism or Taoism and other Asian, eastern cultural factors.

I do not think that discovering those visible or invisible exotic symbols will be helpful in explaining that the union of the east and the west in Paik’s art has actually taken place. The oriental motifs might satisfy the western viewer with its exotic attraction and might even leave a mystified philosophical message for him or her. The consciously or unconsciously familiar sight of Asian items might make the eastern viewer feel authentic in a strange way. But after all, again, the eastern identity will be reduced to authenticity. Again, the colonialist separation of modern and traditional will take place, which I believe is the opposite of what actually happens in Nam June Paik’s work.

I am also skeptical about such kind of attempt because it distracts the viewer. Suddenly, one cannot concentrate on the magnificence of Nam June Paik’s art but comes to sense the political, economical, social layers on which such discourses are taking place. The east eagerly tries to claim that Paik himself and his work can be placed in an eastern genealogy spiritually, culturally and artistically. At the same time, the west never ceases to call him the ‘Korean-BORN’ artist, emphasizing that the majority of his life and art had to do with ‘their’ avant-garde and their Art with capital A. Whether it is the east or the west, as soon as one engages in this kind of debate, one preconditions that it is important to be related to Nam June Paik. Why? Of course because of the grandeur of his art but also, along with his art itself, because of the fact that he survived the imperialistic power structure of the art market in the west. I should feel guilty if I would be too eager to claim that he is Korean, when there are so many Korean artists actually ‘living’ in the east who do not even get the chance to exhibit their work in Seoul. More than that, when it comes to the dialogue between the east and the west, this kind of discourse will only deepen the cast, which is the opposite of what actually happens in Nam June Paik’s art.

Then what actually happens in Paik’s world? Do the east and the west indeed meet and communicate? Nam June Paik’s way of mediating and uniting different cultures is similar to that of a shaman (being different from the exotic, mystified image of shamanism). Nam June Paik himself mentioned several times that he was deeply influenced by the shamanistic rituals he experienced in his childhood, where the shaman crosses over, mediates and connects this world and that world, the visible world and the invisible world, reality and fantasy. The shaman communicates with the world of spirits at the boundary between nature and art and technological art form like media or video art are proper for such tasks. It is because such media expand the functions of the human body and senses, which makes it possible to connect to a space and time beyond reality. Similarly, shaman Nam June Paik connects two or more distant places through network art, whereupon a third space is created, where the center and periphery of culture eliminates and where an artistic exodus happens, outside the orbit of politics and hegemony. Nam June Paik is trying not to divide or separate the east and the west dualistically. He is looking for a ubiquity of human kind.

Personally, I have turned into an enthusiastic fan of Nam June Paik while studying him. After ‘experiencing’ him and his work, I am uncertain if I am entitled to make any easy interpretations on his work after this short-term research. I also am very careful using the metaphor of ‘shaman’ not daring to say that it really suffices to embrace his world. I believe that not the eastern motifs, not the fact that he is Korean but his vision and hopeful and affectionate gaze on human beings in his work makes me feel at home and invited. That is mainly what I have tried to convey in this presentation.

Nevertheless, ending this article, after all the admiring of his work and the experiencing of the encounter between the east and the west in his art, what concerns me is the world outside of the performance space and the academia. Can I expect that what many literary and artistic celebrities in the west and me having taken a glimpse at ‘their’ way of appreciating art feel about the world of Nam June Paik is also valid for many other people back at home? Isn’t my experience of unity between east and west in Paik’s art, a more ‘westernized’ one, I myself being a cultural nomad?  What does it mean that he suggests a vision of uniting the east and the west in his work if the majority of the people in the east do not really know him or know him only by his name mainly because the west acknowledges him or are not used to the Art(again with capital A) itself? What does it mean for me to study the art of Nam June Paik away from home?

I would like to end my article by quoting a note by Guillermo Gomez-Pena.

 “Dialog has never existed between the First and Third Worlds. We must not confuse dialog with neocolonialism, paternalism, vampirism, tokenism or appropriation….but if we engage truly in dialogue, we can develop models of coexistence and cooperation. Only through an ongoing public dialogue in the form of publications, conferences and collaborative intercultural art and media projects can the wound effectively heal.”  (Guillermo Gomez-Pena)




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