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Nam June Paik | Pioneering a New Age of Art and Perspectives

Nam June Paik poses during exhibition preparation

Recent influences of social media and the worldwide digitization have brought about important discussions on its effect on socio-political events. Looking back at this, acclaimed Korean American artist Nam June Paik’s (1932~2006) works come to mind. What were the implications of his works and what kind of issues have become a reality for the world today?

Nam June Paik, Magnet TV (1965)

Blue Buddha (1992~1996) by Nam June Paik, Video installation with 4 color televisions 
and neon light. Gallery artlink Collection. Photo by LEE Jung Sung

Known as the “Father of Video Art,” Nam June Paik pioneered many aspects of the use of technology as an artistic medium. He began experimenting with the relationship between technology and humanity, bringing both forms together and sometimes humanizing digital elements through interaction. 

Piano Activities, by Philip Corner, as performed in Wiesbaden, 1962, by (from left) Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Benjamin Patterson and George Maciunas

Inspired by the Fluxus art movement which emphasized the artistic process over the finished product, Paik would meet John Cage among other prominent collaborators such as Merce Cunningham, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, and Wolf Vostell. Their collaborations would further push him to work with electronic art during his search for something new.

Fluxus artist collaboration with Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik

The Fluxus art movement challenged the notion of “high art” culture in which traditional institutions such as museums determine what is considered art and how it should be valued. Emphasizing the bringing of power back to the masses, it broke the boundaries of art and life through the use of humor. The art form is practiced through the start of a piece without a notion of coming to an end, leaving the outcome to be determined by the viewer. This notion is seen in some of Paik’s works but with an electrical twist.

TV Garden (1974) by Nam June Paik

His installation titled, TV Garden, features 40 TV sets dispersed at odd angles in a patch of plants as if they were blooming. The screens feature clips of dance and music from various cultures, sending waves of rhythm and sound through the ecological environment. The line between two contrasting elements, nature and technology, are blurred while intertwining to offer a visceral experience for the viewer.

Electronic Super Highway (1995) by Nam June Paik

One of Paik’s most notable works is the Electronic Super Highway. This installation is composed of multiple TVs surrounded and broken into all the states of the US by neon bars. It represents his understanding of the US and explores the multi-cultural element of the country featuring clips that viewers may associate with each US state. Kansas is represented by the movie  The Wizard of Oz while Indiana shows the Indy 500 and so on.

Inspired by the development of the US highway system, the clips are sped up to simulate the feeling of looking out the window of a moving car. Paik brings to light the idea of unbound connectivity and communication through technology as the highway network did for the country’s transportation system. The work remains eerily relevant to this day with many new interpretations such as misinformation from information overload and stereotyping.

TV Buddha series (1974) by Nam June Paik

The TV Buddha series unites historical elements with the futuristic. While it alludes to the concept of an infinite loop and observes the relationship between technology and humanity, it also encompasses themes such as surveillance and self-absorption of society in media. The installation works to share art with the masses. It becomes a code translated by the viewer based on their experiences and views born from different perspectives in time, culture, and ethnicities.

A look back at a selection of his TV works are only a small part of his rich journey. Finding new meaning through the Fluxus movement he discovered a new passion in video and sound. From there he studied electrical engineering to develop his new art form that was once a tool for governments and broadcast stations. In this sense, the late Nam June Paik truly stands out as a pioneer in many fields.

“Art changes the world. Good art and new art present new perspectives to the world. Nam June Paik was such an artist.”

– Curator and Art Historian, Wulf Herzogenrath


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