On New Year’s Day 1984 the Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik broadcast his telethon-like work Good Morning Mr. Orwell from a series of satellite-linked television studios in New York, West Germany, South Korea and Paris’ Pompidou Centre, to an estimated audience of some 25 million people. Comprising live and pre-recorded material, its highlights included Merce Cunningham dancing with his own delayed image, John Cage producing music by trilling a feather across the needles of a cactus, and British synth-pop trio the Thompson Twins performing their drive-time classic ‘Hold Me Now’ (1983). Plagued with technical problems as the piece was (each studio was forced by faltering satellite links into a series of local improvisations), it remained for Paik an effective rebuttal of Orwellian prophecy. In the artist’s 1984 television was not a lens through which an oppressive state might pry into its citizens’ most private moments, but rather the enabler of a sunny sort of globalization, in which geographically and culturally distant viewers might gather together to watch what was in effect an avant-garde precursor of 1985’s Live Aid – an event in which, oddly enough, the Thompson Twins also participated.
Staged at London’s newly opened Korean Cultural Centre (KCC) and featuring work by Paik and 24 other Korean artists born between the late 1930s and the early 1980s, ‘Good Morning Mr. Nam June Paik’ embraced the enthusiastic, day-break spirit of the 1984 broadcast. Significantly, the exhibition was largely unconcerned with Paik’s influence on Korean art – Young Kyun Lim’s video Nam June Paik’s Wink (2003), in which a still image of the artist peering out of a screen-less TV set now and then flutters a single set of eyelashes, was perhaps the only piece here that would be inconceivable without his example. But if artistic disciples were in short supply, Paik’s channel-hopping method of ordering and reordering visual information – exemplified by his seminal and widely known video Global Groove (1973), the centrepiece of the KCC show – was employed by curator Jiyoon Lee to bring together a group of works that were as varied in their preoccupations and tone as the collective contents of the TV listings.
A click of the metaphorical remote, and the bourgeois comedy of Waljong Lee’s paper frieze of poppies, canaries and irate golfers Jeju Median Way (2007) gave way to the melodrama of Jonghak Kim’s tense, mustardy, Van Gogh-like canvas Landscape of Sorak Mountain (1988). Another click, and the rolling news of Atta Kim’s impressive photographs of Korea’s demilitarized zone – images whose eight-hour exposure time reveals not movement but an eerie, entrenched stillness – was replaced by the (home from) home improvement of Goldsmiths’ alumnus Youngin Hong’s digital collages, which re-imagine London’s grey skyline as a fecund habitat for gigantic birds, butterflies and blooming flowers. Bodice-ripping historical drama was provided by Joonsung Bae’s The Costume of Painter Kiss AP2/2 (2007), a lenticular image that, when viewed from one angle showed a brooding Caravaggio-esque figure smooching a silk-gowned maiden and from another showed the maiden sans clothes, while Debbie Han’s science fiction-y digital light-jet print Walking Three Graces (2007) transformed Antonio Canova’s sculpture from 1814–17 into something between the replicants of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos (1957). And yet among the disparate works in Lee’s show, commonalities now and then emerged. Meekyoung Shin’s beautiful pots carved from pearly soap were echoed by the lunar Vessel (2005) in Bohnchang Koo’s digitalized print, and the pale luminescence – a cathode ray penumbra – that emanated from both pieces also suffused Daesoo Kim’s large-format photograph Bamboo Field (2003), as though moonbeams had soaked into the crop’s woolly fronds. Close by this grouping, a flat screen showed Paik’s Beuys and Shaman (1999), a documentary video of a memorial rite (all anointed fedoras and smouldering sage) that the artist performed four years after the death of his friend Joseph Beuys. I was reminded of the pair’s shared interest in the moon, something Paik described in the title of a 1965 piece as ‘the oldest TV’.
Like most Europeans, my knowledge of the history of postwar Korean art is pretty skimpy, and it would be reckless of me to pass comment on whether Lee’s show provided a representative survey. In the end, though, this was perhaps not her point. By appropriating Paik’s zappy way with his material, she pointed to fresh modes of negotiating two nearly exhausted exhibition genres – those based on nationality and those based on influence. Good Morning not to Paik’s familiar work, then, but to the way in which it is beginning to inform curatorial practice.