Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Video Buddha
by Jennifer Sachs Samet
Sketch for
Modulation in Sync
Nam June Paik
Photo Rainer Rosenow
Magnet TV
Sketch for
TV Garden
Detail from Family of Robot: Grandmother and Family of Robot: Grandfather
Detail from
Global Groove
Charlotte Moorman
with Paik's TV Cello (1971) and TV Glasses (1971)
"The Worlds of Nam June Paik," Feb. 11-Apr. 26, 2000, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.

For his current retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, the Korean-born New York artist Nam June Paik -- along with wife and fellow video artist Shigeko Kubota and Guggenheim curator John Hanhardt -- has transformed Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling structure into one awe-inspiring extravaganza -- a world of pulsing video monitors, blinking and vibrating with sounds and projections, laser light and cathode rays. It encompasses all the themes Paik has used over the years -- Global Groove, Living Theater, Action Music.

The exhibition is titled "The Worlds of Nam June Paik," and it does showcase Paik's many personas -- the avant-garde composer, bad-boy performer, the video sculptor, the foreigner. Born in Korea in 1932, Paik studied music and art history at the University of Tokyo before moving to Germany in 1956. In 1958 he met John Cage and George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, that anti-art movement that even today remains outside the mainstream. Paik came to New York in 1964, as a composer and musician, and eventually became known as the father of video art. In 1996 he suffered a stroke, but according to friends the long rehabilitation of his body has only heightened his serenity. A new Paik has emerged -- call him the art world's own video Buddha.

The Guggenheim show includes approximately 300 televisions. About 200 of them are assembled, screen up, on the floor of the rotunda, blinking with a series of ever-changing images. Arching overhead is Jacob's Ladder, a green laser projection that zigzags down a seven-story "waterfall" -- a rather contained curtain of water, actually -- that falls from the top of the museum to the pool on the rotunda floor. Six large video projections dance on screens mounted along the spiral. The final light show for the rotunda proper is Sweet and Sublime, in which a laser traces simple, multicolored geometries up on a scrim in the museum dome.

As visitors travel up the ramp, they see some of Paik's greatest Fluxus gestures, things that are not really video art at all, but rather Zen-like conceptual-art koans made with television sets. TV Chair (1968) is a plastic-bottomed chair with a TV underneath. A new version of his 1975 classic, Candle TV, shows a single candle burning inside a TV cabinet. And Moon is the Oldest TV: Colored Version -- another current recreation -- is a row of video monitors, given lavish space, that quietly and calmly display the different phases of the moon.

Further up the ramps are works from the 1970s and 1980s, when Paik really began using television and videotape as an element -- a particularly animated one -- in what can only be called sculpture. Video Fish (1975) features aquariums in front of TV screens, a piece that has stretched out to a row of 25 modules. He fuses technology with life in TV Garden (1974), here in a lavish new installation in which some 30 or 40 monitors are dispersed in and amongst lush green plants. The show features only one of Paik's "Family of Robot" (1986), which seemed to overpopulate the art boom of the '80s. On view are Grandmother and Grandfather, made from old Motorola radios and RCA Victor television sets, along with Hi-Tech Baby, who is comprised of more modern Sonys.

Many of the monitors in the show play Paik's broadcast production Global Groove -- a radical mix of disparate performances, clips from television, nudes and zooming video optical effects. If you look for long enough past the endless flickering, the images read like an autobiography of the artist and his time. We inevitably see blips of Paik's life and the artists who populated it -- John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Merce Cunningham, Charlotte Moorman, as well as worldwide ritual performances.

Up in the tower gallery, the show departs from video flash and dazzle and enters mistier realms of nostalgia and history. Here are black and white photos of the artist's earliest Fluxus actions, along with frayed news clips about Paik and his adventures. At the press preview, I watched while Paik sat among his artifacts, contentedly scratching at a microphone connected to a video monitor. In this interactive work, titled Participation TV -- originally made in 1963 but here in a 1998 remake -- a simple "electronic" configuration of blue, red and yellow lines jumps and moves in response to sound.

Many of the artifacts in this gallery document Paik's legendary collaborations with the late cellist Charlotte Moorman, who once was arrested by the New York City police for her topless performance of one of his works. Moorman brought sexiness and eroticism to Paik's television sculptures. He created for her pieces like TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), in which the images on two small televisions attached to her breasts are manipulated by the act of her bowing the cello. Paik told me, "Charlotte was born about 50 years ahead of her time. She would have made a good match for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton."

While the show is a head-spinning, dizzying spectacle, Paik has also demonstrated how much mileage he can get out of very little. Paik embodies the character in his piece Video Buddha -- peacefully observing the endless, blinking, global groove.

JENNIFER SACHS SAMET is a New York art historian and director of the Center for Figurative Painting.