Nam June Paik



Not on display

Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Video, 2 monitors, black and white and colour, sound and magnetic coils
Duration: 10min, 51sec
Purchased with funds provided by Hyundai Motor Company, the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee and Tate Americas Foundation 2015


Nixon is a video installation that was conceived in 1965 and realised in its current form in 2002. It is composed of two identical twenty-inch colour television monitors connected to a video switcher and audio system. Each monitor is positioned on top of one of two white shelving units, which are placed side by side. The switcher and audio system rest on the shelves below the monitors. Two magnetic coils made by Japanese engineer and electronics expert Shuya Abe are attached to the television monitors and driven by a Mackintosh amplifier. The two monitors screen documentary footage, compiled from television and other sources, of seminal moments in the presidential term of former American president Richard Nixon (1913–1994; incumbent 1969–74). These include Nixon’s inaugural address, televised press conferences on issues from ‘Vietnamisation’ to the Watergate scandal, and his resignation speech. The magnetic coils create a circular frame for the action on each of the screens and distort the received broadcast image, causing the picture to jump and warp as the electrons inside the television respond to the magnetic charge. The switcher box at the bottom of the shelving unit switches the distortion back and forth between the two television sets, ensuring that neither burns out from overexposure to the magnets. The result of the setup is a visually and aurally disrupted sequence of footage that simultaneously animates and undermines the words of the politician.

Reconfigured and stabilised using modern circuitry and voltage control in 2002, when Nam June Paik was living and working in New York, Nixon incorporates the artist’s techniques of image manipulation. In 1960s America, the television broadcasting industry was controlled by a set of rules and standards that dictated what could and could not be shown. For Paik, however, television represented a two-way communication network that was both voyeuristic and participatory not simply a means by which to receive state programming. Through its wilful distortion of the power of political speech, Nixon questions the control exerted by individuals in positions of influence and the ways in which they make use of popular broadcasting methods such as television to mediate and shape their rhetoric.

Following an education in Tokyo, Paik moved to Germany in 1956 to train as a composer, where he became involved in the new electronic music scene around Cologne. Paik was subsequently employed at the Electronic Studio of the West German public broadcasting corporation (WDR) between 1958 and 1963, which exposed him to new electronic devices, sound-producing equipment and knowledgeable engineers, and spurred him to begin his earliest television experiments.

The results of these innovations were displayed in Paik’s first solo exhibition in Germany, two years before Nixon was first conceived. The exhibition, entitled Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, was held in March 1963 at the Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, the home of architect and gallerist Rolf Jährling (1913–1991) and his wife Anneliese. It included thirteen television sets which Paik had acquired second-hand, each demonstrating the effects of his manipulative experimental techniques. Traditional broadcast images were distorted and reconfigured into abstract forms, and defects in the television’s cathode-ray tubes caused negative images and horizontal and vertical lines to roll across the screens, while sine waves, radios and tape recorders connected to the television monitors produced images that grew or diminished according to the amplitude of the sound produced. Using the television as a visual and auditory instrument, Nixon and the works included in Exposition of Music present a deliberately engineered alteration of the received broadcast image. Paik regarded this cutting and pasting of sound and image as the future of artistic production, stating in 1965: ‘As collage technic [sic] replaced oil-paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas.’ (Quoted in Tate Liverpool 2010–11, p.134.)

Further reading
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.
Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2011.

Hannah Dewar
May 2013

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Display caption

This video installation draws upon the most significant television images of Richard Nixon’s presidency up to his resignation speech following the Watergate scandal in 1974. Paik began to use circular magnetic coils to subvert broadcast material in 1965. He often chose politicians as the subjects of his distortions, as a form of visual satire that worked on multiple levels: both against the figures of authority seen on the screen and against the manipulative nature of mass media images.

Gallery label, October 2019

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