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Exhibition visit: Nam June Paik at Tate Liverpool

Korean-born artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) is often called the father of modern video art. Think of Nam June Paik and you probably think of his massive tower of 1,003 TV sets entitled The More the Better (1988) which dominates the entrance to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon just outside Seoul, or of humanoid figures also made out of TVs showing a seemingly random set of video images.

Aunt, Uncle and Route 66
Nam June Paik: Aunt (1986) (left) and Uncle (1986). In foreground: Route 66 (1993). Installation view. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Photo © Roger Sinek, Tate Liverpool 2010

The exhibition which closed recently at Tate Liverpool is an ambitious and welcome attempt to put Paik’s video art in the context of his whole creative life. Organised jointly with the Museum Kunst Palast Düsseldorf, this is the first major retrospective of Paik’s work since his death in 2006.

Those familiar with Paik’s video installations may not be familiar with his early career. His dissertation at Tokyo University was on the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and his first public appearance as a creative talent was as a performer. Having met John Cage at a summer school in 1958 Paik was taken in a new direction and his first major public performance was in 1959, Hommage a John Cage. Pop fans who were shocked when Pete Townshend smashed his guitar on stage in 1964 had been living a secluded life: in Paik’s Hommage a John Cage performance he overturned a piano; his One for Violin which premiered in 1962 involves smashing a violin, while in Paik’s 1963 event Exposition of Musik / Electronic Television Joseph Beuys took an axe to one of Paik’s pianos. It was at this event that Paik first showed his work with television screens, a project on which he had been working in secret. According to the helpful notes which accompanied the Tate exhibition, Paik later said:

I did not consider myself a visual artist. But I knew there was something to be done in television and nobody else was doing it, so I said “Why not make it my job?”

He seized the opportunity. And it was of course with the television – an instrument of the mass media – for which he became known. It was also a medium through which he became known, with his video projects which were broadcast via satellite TV, most notably the 1984 project Good Morning, Mr Orwell.

Paik is also known for his bizarre obsession with sex in performance. An early idea for a performance was the Young Penis Symphony (1962), in which ten aroused young males were supposed, one after the other, to puncture with their manhoods a sheet of paper stretched taut across the stage. He regarded the absence of sex from classical music as a “lamentable historical blunder”.1 His chance to correct this blunder came when he met cellist Charlotte Moorman in New York in 1964, who agreed to play topless in a piece he composed for her.

TV Cello, 2003
Nam June Paik: TV Cello (2003). © Nam June Paik Estate

What came to be her party piece – Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saëns, in which after playing a few bars of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals the soloist leaves her chair, walks across the stage and dunks herself in an oil drum full of water, before resuming her solo back at her chair. Variants on this performance involved the soloist being clothed only in cellophane, or topless apart from a TV Bra. Videos of some of these performances were available at the Tate,2 along with Paik’s TV Cello – three cathode ray tubes in perspex boxes strung like a cello. When used in a performance, the screens often show images of the performer herself, videoed live. This self-referential loop is reminiscent of another series of works by Paik, TV Buddha, in which a stone buddha sits in front of a TV which is showing a real-time video of it via a closed-circuit camera.

TV Garden 1974
Nam June Paik: TV Garden 1974 (Exhibition copy) © Estate of Nam June Paik. Photo © Roger Sinek, Tate Liverpool 2010

Undoubtedley it is the TV sculptures for which Paik is best known, and possibly the most entertaining is Route 66, a pop art icon of a motorbiker astride his machine (see the image at the top of this article). The most visually pleasing is TV garden, an installation of over 30 TV sets all playing the same video. In the current exhibition the video is Paik’s Global Groove, a fusion of pop art and high art designed to popularise his Video Common Market project.

At any Korean art show nowadays you are bound to find some video work being played on the latest Samsung or LG flat screen. But Paik was working with first generation technology: valves and cathode ray tubes. “When one of the screens stops working, it’s a job finding a TV repair man to diagnose the problem, and an even bigger problem sourcing the parts for this vintage equipment,” commented curator Sook-Kyung Lee, the exhibition’s curator at the Tate: sadly, one of the installations was switched off while a vital part was being sourced. But there was plenty of other works to provide stimulation.

Walking through the Tate exhibition you were taken on a chronological journey through Paik’s life as an artist, from his early musical experimentation in the 50s and 60s, his work with Charlotte Moorman and his Heath Robinson style video synthesizer, before moving into the rooms containing his TV sculptures. There were plenty of memorabilia in the form of photographs, programmes for events, letters and videos. Accompanying the exhibition is an informative collection of scholarly essays covering the whole range of Paik’s life and works, edited by the curators Sook-Kyung Lee (Tate Liverpool) and Susanne Rennert (Museum Kunst Palast Düsseldorf).

Laser Cone, 2001/2010
Nam June Paik in collaboration with Norman Ballard: Laser Cone, 2001/2010 © Estate of Nam June Paik and Norman Ballard Photographed by Stefan Arendt, LVR / Medienzentrum Düsseldorf

15 minutes walk away at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) there was an opportunity to immerse yourself in Paik’s videos for free: all his major video works had been burned onto DVDs and you could watch them on the latest flat screen TVs. The majority date from the 1980s, and blend a fusion of rather cheesy 1980s pop music (Thompson Twins, David Bowie) with senior classical performers such as Merce Cunningham or John Cage. Some of the video effects now look rather dated, but at the time were cutting edge. Probably my favourite is Merce Cunningham dancing with himself – his image beamed back and forth by satellite from New York to Paris and back, causing a delay of a couple of seconds and an illusion of a corridor of mirrors. I’m sure similar effects were produced for Pan’s People on Top of the Pops. Also at FACT was one of Paik’s last works, which moved on from the use of video: Laser Cone, a large tent-like structure under which you are encouraged to lie while lasers play on the surface – like being inside a giant spirograph machine. Very restful.

The Tate and their Düsseldorf counterparts are to be congratulated for mounting this informative exhibition, which inspires you to want to learn more about one of Korea’s most well-known artists and the avant-garde world he lived in, and encourages repeat visits as there is too much to absorb in one day.


Thanks to Sook-Kyung Lee and the Tate Liverpool Press Office for their help with this article. The exhibition’s sponsor was Samsung Electronics UK Ltd. The Nam June Paik exhibition ran at Tate Liverpool 17 December 2010 – 13 March 2011.

  1. Quoted by Joan Rothfuss in her essay The Ballad of Nam June and Charlotte – A Revisionist History, in the collection of essays published by the Tate to accompany this exhibition. []
  2. You can find some on YouTube. []

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