THE FUTURE IS NOW
Nam June Paik in Asia
June Yap is a Senior Curator at National Gallery Singapore, as well as Director of Curatorial & Collections at the Singapore Art Museum where she curated the museum’s early media art exhibitions, Interrupt and Twilight Tomorrow.
The Sony analogue video recorder, Portapak, was released in 1965, one year after Nam June Paik relocated to New York. The freedom to film with a compact camera, instead of using film and broadcast equipment, brought a whole new level of autonomy to Paik’s creative practice. Penning excited thoughts on getting his hands on this new technology, he announced that he would present his first footage at Cafe au Go Go in October that year, describing this as fulfilling a long-awaited dream. With this first recorder Paik would make a touchingly simple yet truly memorable work, Button Happening (fig. 1), using an ordinary gesture—of buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket—that is then made extraordinary.
The exhibition Nam June Paik: The Future is Now at National Gallery Singapore marks the final venue of an exhibition tour that charts the aesthetic practice and surveys a range of artworks of this exceptional artist. The exhibition, which was launched at Tate Modern in London, continued to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, crossed the ocean to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and arrives at the shores of Singapore at the end of 2021, its only Asian destination. This exhibition is thus as much thrilling as it is significant for us here, given the artist’s international distinction and his relationship to this region. That said, it is certainly not the first of the illustrious artist’s exhibitions in Asia; this list would include his first solo exhibition at Galerie Watari in Tokyo in 1980 titled V-IDEA; his exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Mostly Video, in 1984; and the travelling exhibition, Nam June Paik: Video Time, Video Space, beginning in Basel, touring Europe from 1991, and finishing its run at the National Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, in 1992. However, these exhibitions involved Nam June Paik directly, whilst the current exhibition affords a different and more retrospective look that is also timely in view of the developments in technology since, profoundly revealing Paik’s prophetic vision during television’s early years.
A central tenet for this touring exhibition is Nam June Paik’s embodiment of the global. Born in Korea in 1932, Nam June Paik left with his family for Hong Kong and then Japan during the Korean War. His studies brought him from Japan to Germany, where he settled down briefly, creating, performing and meeting with like-minded artists who would become his long-term collaborators. Returning to Japan with notable exhibitions under his belt—including participation in the invigoratingly spontaneous Originale in Cologne in 1961 by Karlheinz Stockhausen with Mary Bauermeister, and his first solo exhibition Exposition of Music—Electronic Television at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal using television sets—he would, shortly, move to New York, where he met regular collaborator Charlotte Moorman. From then, his artistic projects traversed Europe, the United States and across the globe, as epitomised in Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984): his first international satellite-transmitted work in 1984, which comprised a celebratory global broadcast produced “live” throughout New Year’s Day. He returned to South Korea in the same year, but continued to travel and show his work around the world until his passing in 2006. It is in this context that Nam June Paik is said to defy national and regional limitations, exemplifying a transnational and transcultural position.1 Yet, in the company of global collaborators, Paik also noted their distinctions—their “otherness” vis-à-vis individual and cultural backgrounds, as well as their preferred aesthetics—that would propel creative possibilities in coming together.2 In a conversation with Edith Decker-Phillips, with whom Paik worked on the German anthology of his writings Niederschriften eines Kulturnomaden (Writings of a Cultural Nomad, 1992), Paik is quoted as having said: “Yes, of course, I am 99% Korean.”3 Notwithstanding what the other 1% might comprise, the question of the “Asian-ness” of Nam June Paik and his artworks is interesting to contemplate, given the complex relationship he seemed to have in Decker-Phillips’ recollection.
But what is Asia in this context? Conceptions of Asia are historically-specific, emerging from 18th- and 19th- century totalising and binary frameworks in opposition to the West (or the non-European) even as the West it implicates is also overly reductive. In Pekka Korhonen’s comparison of three pan-Asian perspectives from the early 20th century—that of Okakura Tenshin (defining Asian in a unity via commonalities of China and India as distinct from Europe, with its centre in Japan), of Rabindranath Tagore (transcendental aesthetic and philosophical convergences, encompassing what is today South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia), and of Sun Yat-sen (emphasising socio-political and technological relations, also expanding geographically from Tagore to add today’s Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, including Persia, Afghanistan, Arabia, Turkey, Annam and Mongolia, with Russia added after the October Revolution)—Asia is defined comparatively and in contest, even into the present. That is, there is no Asia except in relative delineation. Though Korhonen also concluded that culture, as “an aesthetic sense, philosophical orientation or politico-moral organisation,” perhaps lends itself as the closest possible common denomination since the early 20th century.4 Subsequent to this, Asia as concept and entity would become further complicated, and to summarise via the late Chinese public intellectual Wang Hui, Asia under modernity is marked by “derivativeness, ambiguity and inconsistency,” requiring a historical perspective encompassing its developments of nation, subregions, ethnicity, religions, cultural heterogeneity, and colonial and anti-colonial interests, to fully comprehend.5 To add more complexity, further and finer distinctions would likely be desired from Southeast Asia’s more southerly perspective (vis-à-vis East Asia and China), and even within Southeast Asia itself regardless of post-war and economic solidarity. Fortunately, our intent is not to posit an all-encompassing Asia, nor to categorically define the artist’s practice and artworks in relation to such an imaginary, particularly given Paik’s appetite for artistic experimentation and the jet-setting aspects of his practice and projects. Instead, it is to recognise a few ways through which Nam June Paik’s “Asia” might be read: in view of its complexities, which Paik was arguably familiar with and even navigated rather deftly.
The arrival of Paik in the West is often described in relation to his first encounters with artists, as mentioned above. To be added to this list is George Maciunas, who started Fluxus. Founded in the 1960s, the avant-garde movement is historically recognised for its methods of play and improvisation, as well as for its diverse network of artists extending from New York to Germany and Japan, of which Paik was one. With its rejection of convention and canonisation, Paik’s experimental performances and works fit right in. Yet the roots of Paik’s Fluxus-tendencies can be said to have emerged prior to this, given his earlier musical interests (and also noting that Fluxus began in music). In fact, Paik’s move to Germany in 1956 was in further pursuit of musicological studies, as he read History of Music at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. Furthermore, and even before this, Paik’s studies and thesis while at Tokyo University focused on the Austrian-American composer Arnold Schönberg, recognised for his groundbreaking early 20th-century atonal dodecaphonic compositions. Such improvisation is certainly not limited to the West, and one could look closer within Asia, finding similar sonic free rein in the traditional music that accompanies Korean shamanistic rites, such as sinawi.
Shamanism emerged regularly in Paik’s practice, often in relation to a collaborator with whom he felt a strong sense of kinship: Joseph Beuys. Beuys is vividly remembered even after his passing in 1986 within exhibitions and artworks by Paik, as exemplified in his Chongro Cross (fig. 2). A video installation recalling the form of a shrine with an array of folk and ancestral objects, Chongro Cross is Paik’s homage to Beuys, making the shamanistic connection between Tatars and Koreans. It includes video footage of Paik performing a ritual for Beuys while dressed as a shaman, and traces familial and cultural lineages using images of Paik’s own family and their textile factory in the Chongro district in Seoul. It is certainly through shamanism that Paik makes an Asian connection, but this is also an expanded connection that finds affinities beyond Beuys, expressed in shared interests and leitmotifs of rabbits, the moon, shamans, Siberia and Mongolia, as observed by Sook-Kyung Lee in this exhibition’s catalogue.6
Returning to improvisation during the time of Fluxus, where the accidental and the situational were incorporated, it can be observed that for Paik, the unexpected was quite deliberately introduced. Paik’s approach in this was not merely as a creative device, but also a seemingly democratising one, thanks to the element of participation he included. Numerous works attest to this. In works such as Hall with Pianos (1963), Random Access (1963), Random Access (Record Shishkebab) (1963, reconstructed 1979), Prepared Piano (1962–1963) and Video Commune (Beatles beginning to end) (1970, re-edited 1992), audiences were made responsible for their own soundscapes. Audiences are similarly involved in creating their visual experiences in Foot Switch Experiment (1963) and even in the broadcast works. In Global Groove (1973) viewers were enjoined to act: “this is participation tv, please follow instructions”, and in Electronic Opera #1 (1969) viewers were asked to open or close their eyes. In these participatory works, perhaps what is interesting is Paik’s removal of the artist’s hand, allowing for an added element of randomness and surprise, even for the artist himself.
This element of surprise is central to the philosophy of Zen (also known as ch’an in Chinese, which is rendered from the Indian jhāna), at least in the aspect of enlightenment as a direct experience, and perhaps also a nonattachment to particular outcomes.7 Zen was an explicit interest for Paik, particularly in relation to his work with the American avant-garde composer John Cage, who was similarly keen on the subject. In fact, Good Morning Mr. Orwell includes a sung segment by poet Allen Ginsberg performing Do the Meditation Rock: “it’s never too late to do nothing at all, do meditation, follow your breath, so your body and your mind get together for a rest.” In another work, Zen for Film (1964), Paik creates a visual version of the meditative act of awareness using blank film—an elegant representation that is also, ultimately, simple.
Then there are the works that directly reference the Buddha in sculptural form, symbol and in demonstrations of Buddhist philosophies, which are presented in this exhibition in drawings such as Untitled (TV Buddha) (1978) and Untitled (Moon and Buddha) (1978), as well as in the live-video installation TV Buddha (1974), which features a 18th-century wooden sculpture of a Buddha in reflexive contemplation of itself through a closed-circuit camera. Here, this act of self-observation is possible through the television screen, as if to say that through technological innovations, we will see not just what we have made, but also ourselves reflected in these creations.
That being said, it seems that Paik was an advocate of neither Zen nor Buddhism, although he found meaning in their concepts and insights to better understand the world around us.8 One might say the same of his relationship to Asia and its cultural heritage. When Paik arrived in Europe, he declared in pamphlets: “The yellow peril! C’est moi” (Yellow Peril! C’est moi, 1963–1964).9 While this was a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of himself, recalling the term popularised by Kaiser Wilhelm who commissioned German artist Hermann Knackfuss to create an illustrated version Völker Europas, wahrt eure heiligsten Güter (Peoples of Europe, Guard your Dearest Goods) in 1896, as well as anti-Asian legislation in the United States and Australia from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Paik seems to position himself as not only ostensibly Asian but also the inassimilable Oriental Other. Yet, given that Paik’s statement is made in jest, with a characteristic playfulness familiar to his aesthetic approach, it would also appear to be an invitation (albeit a provocative one) to engage with him and his work, regardless of this quality. It is in a similar spirit that we feature a section at the end the exhibition that, as Paik did, references symbols, rituals and subjects which resonate with Asian cultures and contexts, while not being limited to a circumscription of Asian-ness. In her text on Asian migration and transnationalism, Erika Lee suggests that it is critical to read transnationalism not simply as an attenuation or abandonment of nation, or even a “decentering of the nation-state,” but to consider that such migratory acts reflect “global flows of people and ideas,” in search of new opportunities and, in Paik’s case, new experimental possibilities.10
Just as the advent of the Sony Portapak would radically expand the nature of video recording as well as Paik’s practice, Paik’s Asia is not geographically or geopolitically limited. In fact, it is global in its reach. In this sense, Paik’s Asia encompasses more than Asia, where Asia is not defined by exception, but certainly has its exceptions.
- “Identifying what is Korean, Japanese, German or American about Paik’s art would be a futile task, for his practice was always related to a global community of creators and viewers. Paik freely dipped into diverse cultures and new technologies in a manner he described as ‘random access.’” Sook-Kyung Lee, “Nam June Paik: Transforming Cultures, Connecting the World,” in Nam June Paik, eds. Sook-Kyung Lee & Rudolf Frieling (London: Tate Publishing, 2019), 9.
- “Learning from Paik today means to not perpetuate the old-fashioned but still powerful idea of artistic autonomy and genius, but rather to make friends, collaborate and embrace ‘the other’ as Paik himself declared: ‘in engineering, there is always The Other–the other, it is not you’. Rephrasing Paik’s ontology of music, one should emphasise, however, that there is no dialectical juxtaposition of the one and the other because the other could also be not not you.” Rudolf Frieling, “Performing Paik,” in Lee & Frieling, op. cit., 25.
- Edith Decker-Phillips, “Nam June Paik’s Chinese Memories,” in We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik, eds. John G. Hanhardt, Gregory Zinman & Edith Decker-Phillips (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019), 387.
- Pekka Korhonen, “Common Culture: Asia Rhetoric in the Beginning of the 20th Century,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 9, no. 3 (2008): 395–417, 398–9, 401, 403, 405, 407, 409–10, 413.
- Wang Hui, “The Politics of Imagining Asia: A Genealogical Analysis,” The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader, eds. Kuan-Hsing Chen & Chua Beng Huat, trans. Matthew A Hale (London: Routledge, 2007), 66–102.
- Sook-Kyung Lee, “Becoming Shamans: Paik and Joseph Beuys,” in Lee & Frieling, op. cit., 136.
- “The history of Zen dates with the coming of Bodhi-dharma (Bodai-Daruma) from the west, AD 520. He came to China with a special message which is summed up in the following lines: “A special transmission outside of scriptures; no dependence upon words and letters; direct pointing at the soul of man; seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.’” Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, “History of Zen Buddhism from Bodhidharma to Hui-Nêng (Yeno),” in Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1949), 176.
- Decker-Phillips, op. cit., 384, 386–7.
- Jean-Paul Fargier, “The Yellow Peril and the White Wolf,” in Nam June Paik: Video Time—Video Space, eds. Toni Stooss & Thomas Kellein (New York: edition cantz, 1993), 103.
- Erika Lee, “The ‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Exclusion in the Americas,” Pacific Historical Review 76, no. 4 (November 2007): 537–62.