The artist Nam June Paik was born in Seoul, Korea on 20 July 1932, the youngest of five children, and went to the Kyunggi High School in Seoul, during which time he took private piano lessons and studied composition.1 In 1950, his mother Chong-Hi Cho and his father Lak-Seoung Paik fled the Korean War with their children, travelling first to Hong Kong and then to Japan.
From 1953 Nam June Paik studied musicology at the University of Tokyo before moving to Germany in 1956 where he continued his studies in musicology, philosophy and art history in Munich, Freiberg and Cologne.2 He worked in the studio of the West German radio station WDR, which featured the work of avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mary Bauermeister. Paik had met Stockhausen, who was experimenting with audio synthesizers, along with John Cage, at the Darmstadt International Summer School Course for New Music in 1958.3 Bauermeister organised a series of events in Cologne involving Joseph Beuys, Cage, Paik and others. These encounters greatly influenced Paik and his ideas about performance.4
In 1961 Paik met George Maciunas, the founder of the experimental community of artists Fluxus, joining the group the following year and beginning to participate in Fluxus performances in Europe.5 In 1963 he had his first solo exhibition, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany. The following year Paik moved to New York and began working on projects with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, a collaboration that would last until Moorman’s death in 1991.6 At the opening of the Second Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival at Judson Hall in 1964, Paik and Moorman first performed Robot Opera, in which a remote controlled robot made from junk, Robot K-456, accompanied Moorman’s cello with recordings of speeches by John F. Kennedy.7 Paik had constructed the robot in Japan with the help of the artist and engineer Shuya Abe.8
Another significant work by Paik from this period is Zen for Film 1962–4 where a blank loop of transparent analogue film is projected onto a screen. In this and associated works such as Zen for Walking 1961 and Zen for TV 1963–75, Paik used everyday objects like television sets or sandals to make connections with philosophy and thinking.9 This interest in the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism was influenced by Cage.10
Between 1964 and 1968 Paik undertook a number of performances, many with Moorman, and in 1965 Moorman performed Paik’s Cello Sonata No.1 for Adults Only in conjunction with his first solo exhibition in America. In October 1965 he showed his first videotape at the Cafe Au Go Go night club in New York, and in December that year exhibited his first videotape recorder installation at the Galeria Bonino, also in New York.11 Moorman performed Paik’s Opéra Sextronique at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in New York in February 1967. During the second part of the performance, Moorman was naked from the waist up and was arrested for indecent exposure.
The technology of television and the movement of information become the primary subject of Paik’s art. His paper ‘Expanded Education for the Paperless Society’ of 1968 made the case for an education programme delivered through video.12 In 1969 Paik participated in the important exhibition TV as Creative Media at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York and in 1970 made a four-hour long broadcast, Video Commune, for the Boston-based station WGBH.
In a pre-internet era Paik predicted that ‘technology would enable people to communicate immediately’.13 For Paik, television was an instrument in a global network of communication. These ideas are echoed in works throughout Paik’s career and in a range of media, for instance Zen for TV 1963/82, I Ching TV, TV of Change 1974 and, much later, Golden Buddha 2005. However, from the beginning, Paik sketched in the margins of his writings and used drawing to further explore his developments in media technology.14 There are interrelationships between Paik’s works in different media, which often defy fixed categorisation. In his 1973 production Global Groove (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Paik spliced together distinct segments of footage featuring the work of Moorman, Cage, Stockhausen and others, as well as recycled sections from his own earlier experiments, claiming ‘I make technology look ridiculous’.15
In 1977 Paik married the Japanese video artist Shigeko Kubota in New York. That year he also performed his first satellite telecast and became visiting professor at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. The following year he began teaching at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.16 In 1980 Paik was commissioned to make a video work for the Lake Placid Winter Olympic games, and in 1981 he was honoured with the Willi Grohmann Prize by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, and with a DAAD Fellowship to work in the city.17
For Laser Video Space 1982 Paik worked with laser artist Horst H. Baumann to develop one of his most radical transformations of video in an installation that used a laser to project videotapes into space. With the television monitor removed, Paik could work on a large scale not previously possible.18 In 1984 Paik visited Korea for the first time in thirty-four years.
Paik’s later monumental video installations include: The More the Better 1988 (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea), a three-channel video installation with 1,003 monitors and a sixty-foot high steel structure; and the spectacular video wall Megatron/Matrix 1995, an eight-channel video installation with custom electronics. It was exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and later acquired by the museum in 2006.
In 1996 Paik suffered a stroke that limited his physical mobility, but he continued to work with the support of his nephew Ken Hakuta. Throughout the 1990s and beyond Paik continued to make newspaper drawings (see Untitled 2002, Tate L03649), which had always been central to Paik’s artistic practice, offering an immediate and direct method of developing and conveying ideas that were integral to his thinking as a whole.
In 2005 he created Chinese Memory, one of his last works, an installation containing a television cabinet with antennae, books, paint and Chinese scroll.
Paik died on 29 January 2006 in Miami Beach, Florida.
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