Nam June Paik, who transformed video into an art form and drove to abstraction the images of broadcast TV, died in Miami on Jan. 29, 2006. He was 73. A few days later, on Friday, Feb. 3, Paik’s amazing memorial service at the Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel on Madison Avenue reminded everyone there that the art world had lost one of its most joyful and subversive elders. Nam June’s last rites were a rare mix of the sublime and the outrageous.
Films of Nam June in action were projected on a screen on the far wall of the room. By 3 pm, when the service began, it was SRO -- for this was a reunion of the Fluxus clan and the now distinctly weathered members of what once was the hardcore avant-garde. Notably present were Jon Hendricks, Museum of Modern Art media curator Barbara London, Kate Millet, Yoko Ono and Jonas Mekas. Notably absent were New York museum directors -- at least I didn’t see one.
The artist himself, serene as a baby in his open casket, banked by huge baskets and bouquets of white flowers, was practically hidden behind a living wall of several dozen paparazzi festooned with tiny digital cameras, elaborate video cameras and microphones. The reporters had jammed themselves into the space between the pews and the front of the chapel. They had spilled back into the aisles. They climbed over each other, their flash bulbs flaring, as the largely Asian press swarmed like bees on speed to record the event for the newspapers and television channels of Seoul and Tokyo. Ray Johnson scholar Bill Wilson, ever-urbane, whispered in mock horror, "I have Southern relatives who would never make it out of here alive if they saw this!"
Our initial shock turned to delight. One of the last great Fluxus events had begun.
Carolee Schneemann and I sat beside Shigeko Kubota, Nam June’s widow, in the second row, which was mostly reserved for speakers. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s attempt to be unobtrusive in our row was somewhat undermined by Jeanne-Claude’s signature red hair. Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham appeared at the last minute before the service began. As Yoko sat down in front of us in the first row, next to Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the paparazzi went mad. The media storm became a tornado. Reporters with microphones attacked, climbing over Merce in his wheelchair to get to Yoko. Cameras buzzed. With elegant dignity Yoko smiled and turned them away with a few words.
The photographers and reporters at last assumed a momentary attitude of relatively quiet respect. Ken Paik Hakuta, the nephew Nam June and Shigeko, brought up after he arrived in America 40 years ago at age 14, led the service. Also known as "Dr. Fad," the charming Hakuta is famous outside the art world as the inventor of the Wacky Wallwalker, a toy that sold millions in the late 1980s. (Within the art world, he is director of Paik Studios). Ken read a telegram from the president of Korea, where a Paik Museum has recently broken ground. He then introduced each speaker.
John Hanhardt, film and media arts curator of the Guggenheim Museum, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Yoko, Bill Viola and Betsy Broun all talked about their friendships with Nam June. Wulf Herzogenrath, director of the Bremen Kunsthalle, recalled Paik’s early years in Germany. John Hanhardt told a story about the night six years ago when he and Nam June were staying late at the museum to install Paik’s year 2000 retrospective. John noticed that Paik’s ground floor installation was reflected in the moonlit night sky through the Guggenheim glass ceiling. "Look!" he said to Paik. Nam June looked up, pointed at the sky and said, "That’s high art." Then he pointed to the installation on the Guggenheim floor. "I make low art."
Tae-Ho Song, president of the Gyeonggi Foundation in Korea, which is building the Paik museum, described Paik as a national cultural hero. Ken Hakuta followed him, telling many other stories about his uncle. Here's the one he ended with:
"In 1998, Nam June was invited to a state dinner at the Clinton White House, June of '98. Some of you will remember -- it's not that long ago -- that was the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nam June was going, and he asked if I would go with him. I wheeled him into the White House, and these gigantic Marines took over from there. Nam June was very amused, I think. He was having a great time, talking to all the people. Then we got into to the receiving line. Nam June decided to show respect, I think, to the President, Mrs. Clinton and the other dignitaries there. He decided to get up from his wheelchair, get on his walker, and try to walk through the receiving line. The world press is across from the line at the state dinner. Tens and tens of cameras and video cameras, everything. So as Nam June is talking to President Clinton, and I'm standing right behind him, Nam June turns around and says to me, ‘Ken, I think my pants are falling down.’ True story here. And I said, ‘What?’ ‘My pants are falling!’ he says. I look down, and his pants are falling! They are completely down on the floor. And he has no underwear on! So I pick up his pants. I pull them up and I just hold them there. Now, Bill Clinton is such a cool president he still continued to have small talk with my uncle. I think they were talking about Chelsea, maybe, I don't know. A little bit down the line, I could see that Hillary was really not amused at all. She was ticked. But Bill Clinton was saying nothing. It was really quite amazing.
"After that interesting dinner, Nam June was inundated with phone calls, faxes, everything. All his friends around the world thought that was the best Fluxus performance in the world. Everybody wanted to know, including the press, whether it was an accident or whether it was a statement, because you have to remember, my uncle is in a wheelchair now, but he has a reputation for being a cultural terrorist. So I asked Nam June, ‘Did you drop your pants on purpose? Was it an act? Was it an artistic statement? A political statement?’ And he replied, ‘My pants dropped. That's all.’ He told me -- and this is very Nam June -- he said, ‘It really doesn't matter. It was a great event.’ He's just like that, totally unfazed. Was he embarrassed? No, of course not! And I think Bill Clinton was very cool about that, too. The press was so excited that somebody else's pants, not the president's, had dropped in the White House. They were so excited by that. It was the ultimate Fluxus event."
Ken wasn’t finished yet though. Looking over at Nam June sleeping in his coffin, he added, "We have had a lovely service, but Nam June wouldn’t want it to end on a serious note. So we are going to do something else for him. We are going to reenact one of his first Fluxus performances -- the one where he jumped out of the audience at a John Cage performance and cut off John Cage’s necktie." Picking up a big basket of scissors, he continued, "Now I want everyone in the audience who is wearing a tie to turn to his neighbor who is wearing a tie and cut off each other’s ties. And if you are wearing a $300 Ferragamo tie, well, too bad!"
And Ken handed out about 50 pairs of scissors. Christo, who never wears a tie, looked relieved. So did Bill Viola, whose skinny handmade bolo tie gained him immunity from the ceremonial tie-severing. Everyone else went to work and happily cut off the necktie of his neighbor. The paparazzi had a field day. Then everyone took his chopped-off tie-end and put it into the coffin with Nam June before we left him there in Frank E. Campbell’s chapel. The mood was fantastic. Afterwards, everyone with or without a severed tie went off to a huge party at the Mark Hotel.
P.S. Since he was a global artist, Paik reportedly asked to have his ashes scattered in ten countries. He has already had other services in Tokyo and New York and Mar. 18 was the 49th Day People’s Memorial and Happening in his honor in Seoul. Two additional services are scheduled after that. On Mar. 25 the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, holds a memorial service for Nam June Paik at 3 p.m.; On Apr. 26, a Nam June Paik celebration is slated for 6:30-8 p.m. at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a writer.