Nam June Paik

Can Car

1963

Not on display

Artist
Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Medium
Metal cans, wheels, electric motor
Dimensions
Object: 110 × 405 × 135 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Hakuta Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2016
Reference
T14689

Summary

Can Car 1963 is an early sculptural object by Paik produced in Germany, where he lived between 1956 and 1964 before moving to New York. As the title suggests, it is a small representational adaptation of a motorised vehicle, fabricated from metal coffee cans attached to an axis with an electric motor mechanism and wheels.

Following an education in Tokyo, where the artist fled from South Korea with his family in 1949 on account of the imminent Korean War, Paik arrived in Germany in 1956 as an aspiring composer. Having completed his musical studies at Munich University and the Academy of Music in Freiburg, he immersed himself in the New Music scene around Cologne, establishing a number of influential and enduring friendships that he would acknowledge and celebrate with works in later years. They included avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham, and future Fluxus pioneer Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), with whom Paik would be connected throughout his career. Most important, however, was the meeting with experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992), which occurred at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt in 1958. A student of Arnold Schönberg, on whom Paik had written his thesis at the University of Tokyo, Cage revolutionised Paik’s views on music and performance, and was responsible for the incorporation of chance and silence into his musical and performance experiments: qualities that would later prove to be fundamental to his work. As Paik himself acknowledged: ‘Cage means ‘bird cage’ in English, but he didn’t lock me up: he liberated me.’ (Quoted in Statens Museum for Kunst 1996, p.20.)

‘Fluxus’ – or Neo-Dada as it was initially known – was a collaborative, anti-authorial and international anti-art movement, envisaged as an attempt to counter the artificialities of traditional artistic canons. Originating with a number of artists and composers centred around John Cage in New York, it developed under the leadership of the Lithuanian-born American artist George Maciunas (1931–1978), who moved to Germany as a graphic designer in the US Air Force in 1961. Regarded as the founding manifesto of the movement, Maciunas’ Neo-Dada in the United States of 1962 set the tone for the group’s artistic practice.

Largely based on the ideology and ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Fluxus challenged the parameters laid down by traditional visual arts, pioneering a distinctly anti-art aesthetic and a focus on revolutionary anti-commercialism. With a name that evoked ideas of change and flow, it deliberately included banal everyday materials in a confrontational act, employing improvisation and paradox to innovative effect. Fluxus actions sought to destabilise the authority of performance – with a deep-seated and profound sense of irony – and imbue the art work with multiple and contradictory meanings. The viewer was changed from passive receiver to active participant as music and art were transformed into simple and perplexing actions, with new and revolutionary uses created for traditional instruments and media.

By the time Paik encountered Maciunas in Germany in 1961, he was actively involved in the kinds of performances that had been pioneered by the American across the Atlantic, contributing to exhibitions and musical renditions in and around the region. Invited to join the Fluxus movement by Maciunas himself – who had heard of and been impressed by his provocative and experimental performances – Paik became an integral member of the group and a close friend of its leader. Acting as an enthusiastic and energetic right-hand man, he helped to organise a variety of events, exhibitions and festivals, collaborating with his contemporaries and performing his own compositions.

Conceived in the spirit of Fluxus – as the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of its title suggests – Can Car is deliberately banal, incorporating and elevating cheap materials and everyday objects to the status of art works. Can Car is fabricated from scraps of material that others would throw away: two rusty cans, soldered together to form one longer drum. The later work Flux Fleet 1974 (Tate T14690) similarly elevated a set of old irons into an armada of mock battleships.

Further reading
Nam June Paik Video Sculptures: Electronic Undercurrents, exhibition catalogue, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, September–November 1996.
The Worlds of Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February–April 2000.
Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, December 2010–March 2011.

Hannah Dewar
May 2013

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Display caption

Made in Germany during Paik’s early years as an artist, Can Car was constructed by soldering together two rusty oil drums, and originally powered with a small electric motor. Its playful spirit and repurposing of discarded materials reflects Paik’s involvement with Fluxus, an anarchic network of artists and composers who challenged traditional ideas of what art should be. Paik came to Germany to study music, and became immersed in the experimental music scene. In 1961 he met George Maciunas, the central figure of Fluxus, who invited Paik to join the group.

Gallery label, November 2014

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