No artist has had a greater influence in imagining and realizing the artistic potential of video and television than Korean-born Nam June Paik. Through a vast array of installations, videotapes, global television productions, films, and performances, Paik has reshaped our perceptions of the temporal image in contemporary art. The Worlds of Nam June Paik transforms the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao into a celebration of the moving image and an appreciation of Paik's impact on the art of the late-twentieth century.
Paik studied music composition first in Korea, then at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote his thesis on Modernist composer Arnold Schönberg. In 1956 Paik traveled to Europe and settled in Germany to pursue his interest in avant-garde music and performance. During studies at the Summer Course for New Music in Darmstaat in 1958, Paik met composer John Cage. Cage's ideas on composition and performance were a great influence on him, as were those of George Maciunas, the founder of the radical art movement Fluxus, which Paik was invited to join.
Paik's initial artistic explorations of the mass media of television were presented in his first solo exhibition in 1963, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany. This milestone exhibition featured Paik's prepared televisions. Paik altered the sets to distort their reception of broadcast transmissions and scattered them about the room, on their sides and upside down. He also created interactive video works that transformed the viewers' relationship to the medium. With these first steps began an astonishing effusion of ideas and invention that, for almost 40 years, have played a profound role in the introduction and acceptance of the electronic moving image into the realm of art.
In 1964 Paik moved to New York and continued his explorations of television and video, and, by the late 1960s, was at the forefront of a new generation of artists creating an aesthetic discourse out of television and the moving image. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he also worked as a teacher and an activist, supporting other artists and working to realize the potential of the emerging medium. Along with his remarkable sequence of videotapes and projects for television-featuring collaborations with friends Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, David Bowie, Cage, and Merce Cunningham-he created a series of installations that fundamentally changed video and redefined artistic practice.
The Worlds of Nam June Paik, on view in the second-floor galleries of the museum, highlights artworks from the span of Paik's career. Architect Frank Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with both classical galleries and innovative curvilinear exhibition spaces, offers a spectacular environment for the visitor to discover the achievements and adventures of Paik's prolific career. There is not a traditional linear and chronological sequence to the design of the exhibition, but rather a juxtaposition of artworks from different points in time to suggest the connections and continuities of Paik's creative output. This curatorial approach responds to Gehry's post-Modern architecture and Paik's transformative integration of the electronic moving image into art making. Both the artist and the architect have redefined art and its public presentation at the onset of a new millennium.
Paik's innovative thinking about media and technology informed his aesthetic early on in his work. A selection of restored audio pieces from the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates his use of recorded sound as an integral part of his Fluxus performances. Examples of Paik's earliest videotapes from the 1960s-recently rediscovered and restored-are presented alongside videotapes and television productions taken from the span of his career. Candle TV (1975) establishes the ironic interplay between nature and technology that runs through all of Paik's work. Other pieces articulate Paik's movement between performance-as Broken violin from One for Violin Solo, 1962, at the Whitney Museum of America Art, New York, June 2, 1982 (1982)- interactive audio works (Random Access) (1963), and groundbreaking interactive video (Participation TV) (1963).
Paik created many small-scale yet significant works. With references to ancient Korean burial rituals, Video Buddha (1976) features a sculpture of Buddha partially buried in a mound of earth, contemplating himself on a closed-circuit video monitor. TV Chair (1968) is a playful treatment of the reception of television in which a monitor replaces the seat of a chair so that when sitting on it, one covers the screen. And Paik's interest in humanizing technology is celebrated in Family of Robot (1986)-a series of video character sculptures fabricated from vintage radios and television sets. Other works highlight the ways in which Paik's collaborations yielded new visual experiences, as seen in Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer (1969), a video-image processor developed with Shuya Abe. And TV Cello (1971), an example of Paik's experimentation with re-imagining video as a new kind of musical/visual instrument, is one of the many pieces he made for his great collaborator in performance Charlotte Moorman.
Paik has produced a remarkable body of new work using laser technology. In collaboration with laser specialist Norman Ballard, he created Modulation in Sync (2000), a large-scale installation comprised of Sweet and Sublime (colorful laser patterns projected onto the ceiling) and Jacob's Ladder (a waterfall through which a laser is projected), which evokes the dynamic play of nature and light. Another installation of laser sculptures, Three Elements (2000), employs laser to create a virtual space, redefining sculptural form and materials. And in Laser Cone (2001), Paik's latest work, he manipulates lasers to play on the surface of a large conical construction as a means to envelop the viewer in a graphic articulation of light. These projects are related to Paik's earlier works in which he altered the cathode-ray tubes of televisions, such as the abstract linear patterns of TV Crown (1965) and the evocative re-creation of phases of the moon in Moon is the Oldest TV (1965).
Paik's expressive treatments of video can be seen in the flames of One Candle (Candle Projection) (1988) as they become a striking backdrop to Mongolian Tent (1993), Paik's evocative meditation on his friend Joseph Beuys. Projected inside the tent is a tape of Paik and Beuys's powerful performance together in Tokyo in 1985. And TV Garden (1974) is a brilliant installation that celebrates the spread of television as a sprawling garden of real plants and monitors with flickering images. The conceptual sequence of Video Fish (1975) and closed-circuit video treatments of Swiss Clock (1988) and Real Fish/Live Fish (1982) reveal Paik's witty and continuous fascination with time and images that function as both illusion and reality.
The Worlds of Nam June Paik reflects the scope of Paik's remarkable career-from his transformation of broadcast television and video to his reconfiguration of laser into a new form of sculptural and installation art. Further still, Gehry's treatment of space allows for an unprecedented display of a body of work that embraces the virtues of change and recognizes art's powerful role in helping us understand the world as it evolves around us. Paik's unique achievements, the precedents set by his creative accomplishments, and the wide range of his work attest to the key role he has played in expanding the definition of art through media. This exhibition not only acknowledges his importance, but also testifies to the extraordinary impact the moving image will continue to have on the art of the 21st century.