Nam June Paik’s Enduring Relevance

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presents the artist’s first major retrospective in 20 years

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BY Arthur Solway in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 08 SEP 21

‘Nam June Paik’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) is the artist’s first major retrospective in more than 20 years. Featuring more than 200 works from the artist’s five-decade career this retrospective constructed a refreshing narrative of Paik’s beginnings as a classically trained composer and irreverent performance artist.

Among the earliest works, presented as a preface to the exhibition, are Sinfonie for 20 Rooms (1961/1974) and Button Happening (1965), Paik’s first silent, black and white video depicting the banal or Zen-like action of the artist buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket. The handwritten score for Sinfonie for 20 Rooms incorporates notations for ambient odours, visual components, sounds and performances, creating a sensory assault or ‘action music’ within different spaces. The pairing of these two early examples seems pivotal in relation to how they point towards what would become Paik’s imperatives in later works: breaking down barriers between art and music, audience and performer.

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971; collection Walker Art Center, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992, Minneapolis, formerly the collection of Otto Piene and Elizabeth Goldring, Massachusetts; © Estate of Nam June Paik 
Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971. Courtesy: the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; © Estate of Nam June Paik  

Meandering through the labyrinth of 13 thematic galleries, viewers encounter many iconic highlights, including TV Buddha (1974), in which an 18th-century wooden statue of Buddha gazes at his own image via closed-circuit television, and One Candle (also known as Candle TV), where a single candle flickers inside an empty vintage television cabinet. (First shown in 1975, the version on view here dates from 2004.) Both works, which the artist re-created several times over the course of his career, are minimalist homages to his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism.

The central figures of Paik’s artistic circle – Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman – are represented with rooms devoted to each. Moorman’s gallery features TV Cello (1971) and TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), which she often wore when performing topless with two small cathode ray television tubes strapped to her chest. The installation, which also features single-channel documentary videos and ephemera of the fluxus movement, is an extraordinary tribute to the musician.

Nam June Paik, One Candle (also known as Candle TV), 2004; courtesy the Estate of Nam June Paik; © Estate of Nam June Paik; photo: Jon Huffman 
Nam June Paik, One Candle (also known as Candle TV), 2004. Courtesy: the Estate of Nam June Paik; © Estate of Nam June Paik; photography: Jon Huffman  

Only two of the artist’s ubiquitous video robots appear in this exhibition: Merce/Digital (1988) and John Cage Robot II (1995). This was an astute decision by the curators, who instead opt to focus on Paik’s early experimental work – including a re-creation of his first exhibition, ‘Exposition of Music – Electronic Television’, held at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in 1963 – as well as on his grander ambitions. His first international satellite transmission, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, presented on New Year’s Day in 1984, featured simultaneous performances from the US, Europe and South Korea by many of his friends, such as Laurie Anderson, Cunningham, Peter Gabriel and Allen Ginsberg. Two years later, Paik would broadcast Bye Bye Kipling, linking New York, Tokyo and Seoul during the Asian Games, again mixing ‘high art’ with entertainment and popular culture.

The SFMoMA exhibition culminates with Paik’s tour-de-force Sistine Chapel (1993/2019), restaged for the first time since its debut at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Employing 40 multidirectional colour video projectors rigged to scaffolding, the work is a cacophonous assault of audio with a mix of fast-paced footage from the artist’s past videos, a ruckus summation of his entire artistic output. In a small side chapel, One Candle (Candle Projection) (1989) sees a CCTV camera aimed at a single flickering candle on a tripod, the live feed projected and multiplied in a spectrum of red, green and blue. This installation felt like an afterthought. (The projection of the flame didn’t have the mesmerizing power of previous iterations.) One might imagine the challenges of curating any major retrospective without the input of the artist (Paik passed away in 2006). That said, the exhibition is a testament to Paik’s enduring legacy, his influence on a generation of other video artists and multimedia practitioners to follow.

Nam June Paik’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 3 October.

Main image: Nam June Paik, Sistine Chapel, 1993/2019, installation view, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy: the Estate of Nam June Paik; © Estate of Nam June Paik; photography: Andria Lo 
Thumbnail image: Roman Mensing, 
Nam June Paik, yawning, 1993; © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de  

Arthur Solway is a writer and poet. His essays, reviews and poetry have appeared in Art Asia PacificArtforumTriQuarterly and BOMB. He was most recently a finalist for the 2021 Donald Justice Prize in Poetry. He lives in Santa Cruz, California

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