Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik

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Nam June Paik

A candle burns inside the shell of a vintage TV. The candle is a symbol for the transient nature of life and material values, sometimes used for ritual purposes, such as meditation in Zen Buddhism. In contrast, the television is what we all watch at the end of a long day for a passive sense of escape, and is colloquially known as The Idiot Box. Not so for Nam June Paik.

In contrast, the television is what we all watch at the end of a long day for a passive sense of escape, and is colloquially known as The Idiot Box.

Internet dream   1994 %283%29

Internet Dream 1994. Install view, Tate Modern 2019. Ten 20-inch cathode-ray tube televisions, forty-two 13-inch cathode-ray tube televisions,custom-made video wall system, steel frame and three video channels, colour, sound (2870 x 3800 x 800 mm). ZKM Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe. Photography by Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

In Paik’s hands, the cathode-ray tube is a canvas. Televisions are tractable surfaces littered and alive with indeterminate electrons: a way to connect a heterogeneous planet.

‘One Candle / Candle TV’, first made in 1975, flickers with an ironic interplay between nature and technology: where we expect to see a spectral representation made from light, instead we find the real lit wick and wax. But, as seen within the wider context of Paik’s practise, the work extends beyond irony into a sincere proposition: it can be viewed (just like a TV program) as a unit of time, and can be used for meditation or however else the viewer sees fit. In this sense, Paik’s candle is strangely prescient of mindfulness apps and the countless Buddhist sanghas who have taken to the web.

Paik’s candle is strangely prescient of mindfulness apps and the countless Buddhist sanghas who have taken to the web.

One candle %28also known as candle tv%29   2004

One Candle (also known as Candle TV) 2004. Install view, Tate Modern 2019. Cathode-ray tube television casing with additions in permanent oil marker, acrylic paint and live candle (356 x 406 x 406 mm.) Courtesy the Estate of Nam June Paik. Photography by Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

Paik’s meditations continue in ‘TV Buddha’ (1974), in which a black stone sculpture of the orbicular monk sits facing a retro-futuristic, spherical TV. He gazes at his own form as relayed through closed-circuit television. Irony again slips into an unexpected experience of harmony and balance. Playfulness and iconoclasm are offset by the apparent intensity of Buddha’s stare. Viewers are implicitly invited to participate in the work and at the same time dissuaded from doing so by the way that Buddha is framed with his head and shoulders taking up most of the screen (whenever a fellow visitor crouches down into shot, it feels like a crude disturbance, like photobombing.) East meets West; technology meets spirituality. Here, the closed-circuit loop is poeticised as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things. A technologised humanity; a humanised technology.

Tv buddha   1974

TV Buddha 1974, Nam June Paik. Install view, Tate Modern 2019. 18th century woodensculpture, closed-circuit television camera and JVC Videosphere cathode-ray tube television. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photography by Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

Buddhism teaches the value of meditating on ‘no-thing-ness’ as a way of reaching a state of enlightenment, and in Zen for Film (1964) Paik provides a way of doing so. In another elegant proposition, Paik creates a kind of nothing. Inspired by John Cage’s 4’33” — a musical composition consisting of silence, or the sounds of the environment during a performance — Paik gives us 20 minutes of blank 16mm film, or indeed a film concerned with the physical aspects of its own projection: scratches, dust, the wall it’s screened on. I watch a couple taking photos of their silhouettes cast by the projector: suddenly the film is their shadow-image; my imagining of the later publication of the image on Instagram; the countless other shadows that must have been snapped in this room; and the realisation that I have filled this apparent emptiness with thoughts, while the couple filled it with a photoshoot. When confronted with uncertainty, we reach for certainty, just as sure as when we’re cold we reach for a jumper. Like the closed-circuit of ‘TV Buddha’, the viewer becomes part of the loop, holding in tension absence and presence.

Nam june paik at tate modern  2019. install view. %282%29

Nam June Paik at Tate Modern, 2019, install view. Photography by Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

As well as exploring the potential of film and TV as a medium, Paik’s work is concerned with its distribution as a potentially democratising gesture. On New Year’s Day 1984, his first satellite transmission, ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’, is broadcast to an audience of over 25 million people, airing in New York and Paris, as well as Korea, the Netherlands and West Germany. A refutation of George Orwell’s prediction that telecommunications would become an instrument of mass surveillance and oppression, Paik’s video event symbolises television’s potential for crossing global borders as a liberating communiqué.

In contrast to the blank space of ‘Zen for Film’, it is a busy disco of an hour, irreverently juxtaposing low and high culture — Oingo Boingo meets John Cage stroking dried cactus needles with a feather.

Self portrait  2005

Self-Portrait, 2005, Nam June Paik. Single channel video installation with 10’’ LCD colour monitor. (349 x 463 x 495mm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

In contrast to the blank space of ‘Zen for Film’, it is a busy disco of an hour, irreverently juxtaposing low and high culture — Oingo Boingo meets John Cage stroking dried cactus needles with a feather — providing a zany aesthetic to match, with satellite-delayed doubling, overlaps, and shifting geometric effects. The live broadcast is subject to the same conditions of chance as much of Paik’s other work, with improvised responses to technical difficulties making the Paris broadcast different to the one out of New York. If Big Brother is watching, he catches one hell of a party.

A tribute to john cage 1973 76

A Tribute to John Cage, 1973-76. Nam June Paik © Estate of Nam June Paik @ Tate

Paik recognises the potential for people to connect and to collaborate via media, and in 1974, he coins the term ‘electronic superhighway’ to denote a decentralised global information exchange system. Sound familiar? The internet has brought with it an even greater freedom than the advent of satellite broadcast did for Paik.

However, Paik does concede that Orwell was ‘half-right’, and with greater freedom, the internet has also brought with it the threat of stronger means of control. There’s the idea that with enough biometric data and enough computing power, an external algorithm might know us better than ourselves — governments and corporations might easily manipulate us with such information.

Tv garden 1974 1977 installation view

TV Garden 1974-1977 (2002), Nam June Paik. Single-channel video installation with live plants and color television monitors; color, sound Courtesy Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. Photography by Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

With this in mind, as we tiptoe into a new year and a new decade — and think of the sheer amount of video calls, vlogs, and live feeds disseminated across the world New Year’s Day 2020 — Paik’s work keeps alight the flicker of utopian promise in our digital landscape. Indeed, such a landscape is envisioned in ‘TV Garden’ (1974 — 1977), in which Paik places TV sets alongside live plants. What should be paradoxical is coherent and integrated, with lush foliage and an assortment of monitors aglow and in bloom. Here, TV is a fertile technology, an extension of humanity. It is up to art, as it is up to each of us to shape it and keep it that way. Paik carries the torch for a more humanised technology, and the game is worth the candle.

By Sammi Gale

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