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Frieze Seoul 2022

Christian Marclay on Okkyung Lee and Nam June Paik

The acclaimed artist speaks about his the Korean cellist, composer and improviser and the shared legacy of Fluxus performance

BY Christian Marclay AND Matthew McLean in Features , Frieze Seoul , Frieze Week Magazine | 24 AUG 22

I met the classically trained cellist, composer and improviser Okkyung Lee back when I was living in New York and involved in the downtown improvisation scene. Born in Korea, she moved to New York in 2000, after completing her studies in Boston. From the start, we played a lot together, made recordings and have done several public performances. She’s amazingly talented, I think – one of the underrecognized stars of the contemporary music scene, in Korea or anywhere. There’s something about the friction of Okkyung’s bow on the strings of her cello that feels like how I play my records when I DJ. The needle in the groove produces the same kind of raw grinding. She pushes her instrument to do unexpected things in the same way that I do with turntablism. We are both testing the limits of what we can do with our instruments.

Our performances together have remained largely improvised. I strongly believe in improvisation, and it’s also important to Okkyung. Amalgam (2016) was a live recording of a performance at Café Oto in London that The Vinyl Factory put out. It was real spontaneous music, like a conversation between friends, two musicians interacting with each other’s sounds. It was well balanced, and I love the confusion, when you can’t tell who is making which sound. After DJ-ing for many years, carrying tons of records around has become increasingly impossible, so I’ve developed this new practice, whereby I play with objects found in the cities where I’m invited to perform. I spend a few days looking for, and coaxing sounds out of, these found objects before I collaborate with improvising musicians. Okkyung has joined me in several of these projects – in Venice, in Milan – playing her instrument as I ‘play’ my objects. Sometimes, these objects are works of art, such as when we ‘activated’ Alexander Calder’s Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33), at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2017, with Okkyung on cello and me adding to the artist’s mobile resonant objects, like plastic and glassware, ceramic or metal bowls. The following year, I was invited to perform at the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, where I used Tinguely’s crazy mechanical sculptures, again with Okkyung and percussionist Luc Müller. It was wonderful.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik during a performance in New York, 1966
Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik during a performance in New York, 1966. Courtesy:

MUUS Collection/Getty Images; photograph: Fred W. McDarrah

Because she’s also a cello player, I always think of Okkyung in relation to Charlotte Moorman, the great American performer who collaborated with the pioneering Korean artist Nam June Paik. Like Okkyung, Moorman was classically trained. After they met in 1964 at the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York (which Moorman founded), the pair collaborated many times over more than a decade. Moorman was arrested in New York in 1967 for performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique, which required her to be temporarily topless behind the cello. Paik later created TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and, in 1971, they presented TV Cello, a sculpture of three television screens which Moorman ‘played’ with her bow.

Paik and Moorman both belonged to the fluxus movement, which I was introduced to by John Armleder when I was at art school in Geneva. The movement resonated deeply with me because it connected with the figures I admired, such as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage – and fluxus artists had a sense of humour. When I first went to New York in the late 1970s, I met a lot of people involved with fluxus, like Carolee Schneemann, who was Moorman’s close friend. I did once meet Paik himself. It was back in 1988, when I co-curated a show with Ursula Block at Emily Harvey Gallery. Called ‘Extended Play’, it was about how artists had used the medium of the vinyl record beyond what it was originally meant for: the archiving of sound. These artists thought of ways to expand on what was possible with records. We included a beautiful record by Paik with a yin-yang symbol printed on it, meant to be played at 16 rpm.

Paik was also a big admirer of Cage, with whom he performed. Paik’s work Zen for Film (1962) is a 20-minute, 8mm filmstrip which has nothing on it, no images. In a way, it recalls Cage’s infamous 4’33” (1952), a piece of music consisting of ‘silence’. But, just as 4’33” isn’t experienced as silence, because there’s always atmospheric sound, Zen for Film isn’t ‘blank’. Instead, through multiple viewings, you begin to see the physical deterioration of the filmstrip itself, what Cage described, in a 1973 interview for Art in America, as ‘the dust that has collected on the film’. Looking at the medium, listening to the medium, letting the medium speak – that’s what interests me. Though Paik was a ‘techie’, he could also be a real poet. I remember seeing his Candle TV (1975) – a single candle burning inside the shell of a television – and being struck by its utter simplicity. It’s an incredible piece.

It’s a funny thing with our forebears. I just spoke to Okkyung a few days ago and told her I was going to be talking about her for this piece, as well as Moorman and Paik. She was amused. ‘We need to move beyond Paik,’ she said: a new generation of Korean artists and musicians are feeling this inheritance is like a weight over their heads. Sometimes, I feel the same about Duchamp, Cage and all the people I admired. Over time, you start to feel more connected, less dependent. You learn to let go of the example of these elders – and become an elder yourself.

As told to Matthew McLean

Main Image: Christian Marclay and Okkyung Lee perform with Alexander Calder’s Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, 1932/33, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2017. Courtesy: © Christian Marclay, Okkyung Lee, Whitney Museum of American Art and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York


This article first appeared in Frieze Week Seoul

Christian Marclay is an artist based in London, UK. His exhibition ‘Christian Marclay’ will run at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York from 12 September to 19 October 2019.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.