Nam June Paik

Bakelite Robot


Not on display

Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Video, 5 monitors and radios
Object: 1200 × 920 × 205 mm
duration: 5min, 5sec
Purchased with funds provided by Hyundai Motor Company, the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee and Tate Americas Foundation 2015


Bakelite Robot is a smaller than life-size sculpture of a robot constructed from nine vintage Bakelite radios. The radios, which are black, red and orange in colour, are joined together in a humanoid shape that includes a head, torso, arms and legs. The dials on the front of four of the radios have been removed, creating hollow circular spaces into which LCD television monitors have been inserted. These television monitors screen videotape specifically developed for the artwork, composed of footage from robot and science fiction films, recordings of vintage robot toys and footage from earlier video edits. Although the sculpture takes the form of a robot, it is not animated. An impression of the robot’s ‘movement’ is instead given by the video footage playing on the screens, which are situated on the hands, knee and hip of the robot.

Bakelite Robot was produced in 2002, late in Nam June Paik’s career, when the artist was working in New York. Acquired from thrift stores and markets, the radios in Bakelite Robot have a vintage appearance. Bakelite had been developed by Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekland in New York in 1907 and was one of the earliest plastics to be introduced into the modern home. It was favoured for its heat-resistant properties, electrical non-conductivity and the fact that it was inexpensive and hard-wearing, and was used in a number of products including radio and telephone casings, kitchenware and children’s toys – a fact referenced by Paik in his Bakelite Robot and its video footage.

Early in his career Paik had focused on making or arranging performative actions and musical compositions, many of which incorporated edited audiotape. However, the time he spent in Cologne working at the Electronic Studio of the West German public broadcasting corporation (WDR) between 1958 and 1963 exposed him to a variety of electronic devices and sound-producing equipment, and to knowledgeable engineers. As a result Paik went on to create artworks that made use of televisions and technological communication. In his words, he started ‘a new life’ at this time: ‘I stocked my whole library except those on TV technique into storage and locked it up. I read and practiced only electronics.’ (Quoted in Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien 2009, p.65.)

In 1963 Paik began visiting Tokyo regularly to study colour television and robotics. It was here that he met Japanese engineer and electronics expert Shuya Abe, with whom he collaborated on his first robotic work, Robot K-456 1964 (private collection). This was an anthropomorphised robotic skeleton that was able to move, make noises and imitate a range of human actions. This and subsequent robotic works made by Paik reveal his ongoing interest in the connection between technology and the human body, one that continued until the end of his career when he made Bakelite Robot. Speaking about another of his early robotic works, TV Bra for Living Sculpture 1969 (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Paik articulated his attempt to ‘humanize the technology and the electronic medium’ (quoted in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 2000, p.62).

Paik’s use of Bakelite radios, video screens and footage for Bakelite Robot recalls a specific moment in twentieth-century history. Radios – and the widespread access to national and international broadcasting that they facilitated – were a key factor in the social transformation of the early twentieth-century American and Western European household. Due to Bakelite’s associations with the home and the human user, as well as the way in which Bakelite Robot makes reference to public and domestic entertainment such as film, radio and television, the sculpture also suggests a particular cultural and social context: the moment at which technology began to be integrated and assimilated into the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Further reading
Nam June Paik: La Fée Électronique, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris 1989.
The Worlds of Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2000.
Nam June Paik: Exposition of Music, Electronic Television, exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna 2009.

Hannah Dewar
May 2013

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Display caption

Paik was fascinated by the figure of the robot, and created his first radio-controlled robot in 1964. This later work is a sculptural figure constructed using nine vintage Bakelite radios, which the artist acquired from thrift stores and markets. Bakelite was an early heat-resistant plastic that was commonly used for domestic electrical goods and childrens’ toys in the 1930s and early 1940s. Paik has customised the radios to incorporate specially compiled video footage. Their archaic quality harks back to an era when global communications technology was just beginning to become part of everyday life.

Gallery label, February 2016

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