This Artwork Changed My Life: Nam June Paik’s “Modulation in Sync”
Installation view of “The Worlds of Nam June Paik” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2000. Photo by David Head. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
Out today on Elephant is Nabihah Iqbal on John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott.
I threw a lot of great, indignant tantrums as a kid, but my favorite, easily, is the time my parents demanded I turn off the television when I was five. My head whipped around, and I shouted, “I’m watching this for us! For our family!”
At the time, my dad was the master control engineer for a public television station in New York City, a job he’d hold for over 25 years. I spent countless after-school hours at the station’s Downtown Brooklyn studio, sitting on the grey particle-board floors doodling, smelling the cool static scent of electricity and air conditioning. Often, my dad or one of his coworkers would pop in a VHS tape of a kid’s drawing program like Pappyland or Mark Kistler’s Imagination Station.
Crayola markers at the ready, I stared transfixed by a wall of hundreds of analog monitors radiating my shows in every shape, size, and aspect ratio imaginable. There was big Pappy; little Pappy; wide Pappy; narrow Pappy; red, green, and blue Pappy. Before every program started, the obligatory public broadcasting credit aired: “Funding for this program was made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.”
I took the “viewers like you” bit to heart—I genuinely believed that my watching PBS meant direct cash flow. To my mind, if PBS was getting paid, that meant my dad was getting paid, which meant food on the table, Christmas and birthday presents, maybe even a family vacation.
That’s why, when I was five, I threw a tantrum when my parents turned off the TV. Watching was my household contribution; I couldn’t bring home a paycheck, but I could damn well sit through all the boring adult education programs that came on after The Big Comfy Couch.
That tantrum led to a very immediate, Santa-like disillusionment; my viewership, it turns out, was inconsequential. By that time, however, it was too late. I was hooked on TV. I loved basking in its ambient glow, escaping in its bliss of information.
Like a lot of left-leaning, media-savvy parents from that generation, my mom and dad were wary of the effect television had on children. Despite them both working for local stations—my mom worked for the Korean-language network KTV—we grew up without cable. A few years after my outburst, a curfew was instituted; no TV until after my little brother and I finished our homework.
Were it not for that injunction, I would’ve spent all my waking hours glued to the TV screen, mouth cartoonishly agape, and eyes glazed over in a trance. Friends would come over and urge us to play outside and I would be unresponsive, catatonic. I loved TV; no one else seemed to understand.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was nine, that I was introduced to someone who seemed to fully comprehend my obsession. That someone was Nam June Paik. In 2000, my parents brought me to see his retrospective “The Worlds of Nam June Paik” at the Guggenheim, incidentally marking my first visit to what would become one of my favorite museums in the city. Turning the corner to enter the cavernous belly of the iconic rotunda, I was immediately struck dumb by a psychedelic sea of 100 television monitors sprawled across the atrium floor, all facing upward, pulsing with flashing images.
Following the gaze of the television monitors up to the ceiling, I stared up at a swirling neon laser light show projected onto the museum’s oculus that extended the building’s spiraling architecture out into the heavens. Finally, my eyes landed on a cascading waterfall, cut through with laser projections, pouring down seven stories into the museum’s ground-floor pool, linking the mass of screens with the oscillations on the ceiling.
Later on, I would discover that what I’d witnessed was an amalgamation of three works combined specifically for this Guggenheim show. Cumulatively titled Modulation in Sync (2000), the work included two laser installations—Jacob’s Ladder (the waterfall) and Sweet and Sublime (the oculus projection)—created in collaboration with laser specialist Norman Ballard earlier that year.
This television dreamscape was beyond anything my nine-year-old self could’ve ever imagined. For one, up until that point, the only artworks I’d seen at museums were by artists who were dead and didn’t look anything like me. This was the first time I’d ever seen a museum show dedicated entirely to an East Asian artist.
The installation was also the first time I engaged with what I would eventually come to know as “new media” art. While my parents had a lot of artist friends doing some pretty wild, experimental stuff, à la Rauschenberg or the Arte Povera movement, I’d never thought it was possible to use actual televisions as works of art.
As a young Korean-American girl fascinated by the hypnotic potency of TV screens, Nam June Paik’s Modulation in Sync made me feel so unexpectedly seen, granting me a kind of permission I didn’t know I was looking for. It seemed to validate all the visits I made to my dad at work, perfectly capturing the magnetic tractor-like pull I felt from all those hundreds of television monitors, embracing the potency of the medium and plumbing its depths to spiritual, transcendent ends. I finally felt understood.
Shannon Lee with her painting of Carlos. Courtesy of Shannon Lee.
Portrait of Carlos. Courtesy of Shannon Lee.
This exposure to Nam June Paik’s work would become a vital source of inspiration for my AP studio art thesis, which consequently saved me from nearly failing out of high school my senior year (I skipped a lot of gym classes). I decided to create a series of works exploring the spiritual and uncanny qualities of television, painting family members and classmates bathed in the ambient glow of TV screens, and covering monitors in layers of flesh-pigmented beeswax and hair to grotesque, humanizing effect. In one of my paintings, I revisited my dad’s television studio and painted his coworker, Carlos, attending to the wall of master-control monitors, the unnatural radiance of the screens casting a surreal light onto his meditative visage. The work was eventually selected as the winner of the Congressional Art Award, shuttling me and my family down to Washington, D.C., to meet my local congressman and to see the painting hung in the Capitol Building. Carlos was tickled by the idea of having his portrait on view in the halls of Congress, and the accolade gave me just enough academic leverage to graduate and attend Pratt Institute.
At Pratt, I studied fine art and, fittingly enough, video art history. Still impacted by that Guggenheim show, I continued to explore screens and identity through painting, creating static-like canvases tiled with repeated images of contemporary Asian pop icons like Psy and Jeremy Lin.
While I haven’t painted anything in years—lately preferring the immediacy that writing allows—Nam June Paik’s Modulation in Sync continues to feel so essential in shaping my understanding of the contemporary world. It’s felt particularly resonant through COVID-19, as so many of us have come to depend on screens in order to make a living, stay in touch with loved ones, or just kill time. While this experience is far from the tripped-out, meditative fantasy of the Guggenheim show, in a way, Paik’s work has taken on yet another dimension, presciently predicting how this technology would allow us to transcend physical limitations, allowing us to be present with one another through quarantines and social distancing. For me, Modulation in Sync will always be such an important home base; the first work of art that shocked me with validation and helped me understand my childhood obsession.