Nam June Paik, Father of Video Art, Remembered at Gallery Hyundai
In 1963, a young Korean artist named Nam June Paik decided to stage an art exhibition featuring 13 manipulated TV sets. The presentation, unheard of at the time, was a revolutionary act that invented an entire artistic genre; it has since led to Paik being known as the “father” of video art. The fingerprints of Paik’s experiments can be found throughout the art world today, as emerging artists continue to push boundaries in the video medium (now, though, they often substitute computer screens for TVs). On the 10th anniversary of Paik’s death, Gallery Hyundai in Seoul celebrates the pioneering artist with a chance to revisit his prolific and still-radical oeuvre.
The show, “When He was in Seoul,” focuses on the artist’s relation to his homeland. Though Paik was born in Seoul, he lived most of his life away from Korea, spending time in both Japan and Germany before settling in New York. It was only in 1988, a quarter of a century after his initial video art exhibition, that Paik had a solo show in Seoul (also at Gallery Hyundai). The current exhibit gathers several pieces from the 1980s and ’90s, many of them originally shown at Gallery Hyundai and since kept in Korean collections.
Center stage are Paik’s “robots”: figurative sculptures fabricated from multiple TV sets, with video still flickering on their screens. Paik first began making these works with his “Family of Robot” series in which he saw an entire familial unit as robotic beings. “When He was in Seoul” includes two of these family members, a grandmother and grandfather. Befitting their age, the robots are constructed from old-fashioned TVs and radios.
Other works offer portraits of artists Paik knew and collaborated with, often with elements of their practice incorporated into the portrait. The sculpture of cellist Charlotte Moorman, for instance, includes a cello with a miniature screen embedded on its front. As quirky as these sculptures are, a sense of dystopia lies beneath their surface. Paik seems to be envisioning a future in which our own bodies have been replaced by a constant stream of images.
Many of Paik’s works exist on this border between embrace and distrust of new media. TV Buddha (1994), for example, offers an uneasy look at spirituality in the digital age. The work sits a Buddha statue between two TVs displaying footage of Buddhas. If Paik suggests that media has the capacity for spiritual uplift, there is also a hint of something lost in the transference from object to image. It’s an unresolved question that lingers as our lives becomes further entrenched in digital media, making Paik’s work all the more vital.
“When He was in Seoul” is on view at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, Jan. 28–Apr. 3, 2016.