Nam June Paik



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Not on display

Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Video, monitor, blind and office model
Duration: 10min, 33sec
Presented by the Hakuta Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017


Office is a one-channel video installation produced between 1990 and 2002. It incorporates a 1920s diorama of an office scene, acquired from a thrift shop, placed on top of a video monitor. This monitor screens edited and reconfigured footage from the opening sequence of French director, screenwriter and producer Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City (1980), set on a loop. The video monitor is encased within a wooden box and is partly concealed from view by a white domestic blind, fitted to the wooden frame and secured on the right-hand side with a tie cord.

Following an education in Tokyo, where the artist fled from Korea with his family in 1949 on account of the imminent Korean War, Paik arrived in Germany in 1956 as an aspiring composer. He studied first in Munich and later in Freiburg, and 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. Having participated actively in the Fluxus anti-art movement during his time in Germany, Paik moved to New York in 1964 on the suggestion of his friend and mentor, the experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992), around whom the movement had initially developed. With the television starting to establish itself as a powerful societal force in 1960s America – and Paik already conducting innovative televisual experiments of his own on second-hand sets – it was immediately clear that the move both suited and fuelled his artistic approach.

As an artist who read widely and wrote intelligently across his career, Paik was familiar with a whole range of contemporary texts. Of particular interest was Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher and communication theorist who published his seminal text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in the year Paik arrived. A pioneering study in media theory, Understanding Media explored the effects of technology in relation to popular culture, investigating the effect upon human beings as individuals and societies. In it McLuhan expressed ideas of a ‘global village’ connected by technological communication, and promoted the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, by which he asserted the opinion that it was the phenomenon of television itself that had the power to unite individuals across the world, not the programming screened upon it.

In the context of McLuhan’s writings, Paik addressed, contextualised and challenged contemporary fears about the power of the television, turning the object – and all that it represented – into a tool for artistic experimentation. At a time when television was an emerging commodity, and its uses and characteristics had not yet been defined, Paik envisaged the future possibilities of technological communications. He strove for the realisation of a world-wide communication network along the lines of McLuhan’s ‘global village’ – well before the invention of the internet – and anticipated the way in which technology and media would connect individuals on a global scale. His views, expressed in 1973, are now more prescient than ever: ‘Imagine a future where TV Guide will be as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory.’ (Quoted in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 2000, p.107.)

Incorporating a single-channel video alongside a 1920s diorama – in which an office worker and female secretaries sit behind desks in a dimly-lit interior – Office seems to address this assimilation of the television into everyday life. Evocative of American realist painter Edward Hopper’s (1882–1967) scenes of modern American life, the diorama sits in dialogue with the screen below, which is partly obscured from view by the white domestic blind: an object that acts as a mirror to the blind covering the window in the office scene above. Screening a looped section of the opening sequence of Atlantic City, the video monitor suggests a different contextual reading of the office environment.

Further reading
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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