The Lasting Power of Paik’s Art

April 26, 2018
A visitor takes a photo of Nam June Paik’s Cello Memory (2002) during a seminar held last winter. Participants were able to get a preview of some of the objects that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition Nam June Paik: Screen Play.

Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (2004) was recently on view for a small group of participants in an Art Study Seminar at the Harvard Art Museums.

The multicomponent object was arranged on a table at waist height so that each person could take stock of the entire work, which consists of a bronze seated Buddha statue, a closed-circuit camera, and a small, helmet-shaped TV monitor that shows live footage of the Buddha (and its surroundings). The Buddha, gazing at himself on the screen, quickly prompted discussion among group members about the idea of old versus new and the interplay of religion and technology. After the session ended, several people crouched down behind the Buddha and snapped photos of the live TV monitor facing them—which was broadcasting the participants themselves, looking straight over the shoulder of the Buddha and into the camera.

Set to be shown in the upcoming exhibition Nam June Paik: Screen Play (June 30–August 5, 2018), TV Buddha, along with several other works, will likely inspire more selfies by museum visitors. Indeed, Paik’s art seems especially suited to today’s technology-obsessed society, even more than a decade after the artist’s death.

“I think Paik’s work is particularly resonant right now,” said Marina Isgro, the 2017–19 Nam June Paik Research Fellow. She is co-curating the exhibition with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “You can interpret TV Buddha in a variety of ways, but one of them is as a meditative experience of looking at and contemplating one’s self-image.” Isgro led the Art Study Center Seminar on Paik, together with conservation fellow Madeline Corona.

  • of Paik’s TV Buddha (2004) consists of a bronze Buddha statue, a closed-circuit camera, and a helmet-shaped TV monitor.
  • of Paik painted words in Chinese, Japanese, and English on the back of the Buddha statue.
  • of Madeline Corona, right, an objects conservation fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, discusses the conservation of TV Buddha with seminar participants.

Commonly known as the “father of video art,” Paik was born in Korea but spent much of his life in the United States. He blended artistic approaches in his practice, combining music, performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, and video. Nam June Paik: Screen Play will include examples of the artist’s oeuvre from the 1960s through the early 2000s, drawn almost entirely from the Harvard Art Museums collections. Eight of the works featured are 2017 gifts from Ken Hakuta, the artist’s nephew and head of the Nam June Paik Estate. The exhibition will feature an additional work given by Hakuta in 2014 as well as two other objects the museums acquired that year. Hakuta also generously established the Nam June Paik Fellowship (of which Isgro is a recipient) to expand knowledge about the artist, his work, and his influences. 

A Fuller Picture

The Art Study Center Seminar gave participants the chance to learn about some of Paik’s early work, including examples of his collaborations with fellow artists George Maciunas and Joseph Beuys.

A Flux-Kit in the museums’ collections is among these items. Several Fluxus artists, part of an international movement that sought to bring art to the masses, contributed to these kits, which were sold by mail order and at Fluxus events. Paik’s contribution, Zen for Film, was a clear piece of film leader, or the blank strip that precedes a film when shown through a projection. It was inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”, a musical composition in which a pianist sits down in front of a piano and doesn’t touch a key for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The experience was intended to prompt listeners to be attuned to the ambient sounds of their environment.

  • of A Flux-Kit in the museums’ collections includes contributions from several artists, including Paik.
  • of Zen for Film was Paik’s contribution to the Flux-Kit. A clear 16mm film leader, it was packaged inside a plastic box with a printed label.
  • of Marina Isgro, the 2017–19 Nam June Paik Research Fellow, discusses the Flux-Kit and other Fluxus objects found inside, such as Japanese artist Ay-O’s Finger Box, during the seminar.

“When you actually project Paik’s Zen for Film, you’ll see a glowing light that’s interrupted by little flickers of scratches or dust on the surface of the film,” she said. “You can think of Zen for Film as the film equivalent of 4’33.

Paik’s 2002 Cello Memory is representative of both his work with other artists and his vibrant video art. Consisting of two flat-screen television monitors on either side of a cello, Cello Memory is a nod to Charlotte Moorman, a musician who often performed Paik’s scores on the cello while wearing or interacting with his video sculptures or other props. One of Paik and Moorman’s most famous collaborations was TV Bra for Living Sculpture, in which Moorman wore two small televisions on a strap around her chest while performing. The side-by-side televisions in Cello Memory echo that earlier work, and the video being shown on the screens incorporates 1971 footage of Moorman playing a different Paik work called TV Cello.

“This is itself a kind of performance documentation,” Isgro said of Cello Memory. “It’s a commemoration of a live event, but Paik re-edited it, and it’s become a new hybrid work, a video sculpture.”

Visitors may already be familiar with Cello Memory, as it was displayed on Level 4, outside the Art Study Center, just after the museums reopened in 2014. However, many of the other works in the upcoming exhibition will be on view for the first time.

“This show gives us the chance to introduce more people to the diversity of Nam June Paik’s work,” said Isgro. “His art addresses so many themes that remain relevant to us today, from the subversion of conventional technologies and media, to the fusion of fine art and pop culture. It will be exciting to see how visitors experience these works in the galleries.”