In​ the first room of the Nam June Paik retrospective at Tate Modern (until 9 February), an 18th-century carved wooden Buddha sits on an oblong plinth. Facing him is an image of his own face, which is being recorded by a closed-circuit television camera and relayed onto a 1970s JVC ‘videosphere’. The monitor’s white plastic casing, which looks like an astronaut’s helmet, was apparently inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two cosmic heads – Buddha and spaceman – may be inert but they seem to be watching each other. As you walk past TV Buddha (1974), you glimpse yourself in the background of the video, caught up for a moment in their silent exchange.

Nam June Paik’s ‘TV Buddha’ (1974)

Nam June Paik’s ‘TV Buddha’ (1974)

Works about surveillance technology are usually concerned with fear, paranoia and control. In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, which was released the same year Paik made TV Buddha, the private investigator Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman) becomes obsessed with his own privacy and racked by guilt about the people he bugs. Paik’s work is more ambivalent: TV Buddha could be read as an image of the Zen concept of satori, in which the true self is seen without the interference of the intellect. He believed that new media had the potential to expand consciousness, and his works from the 1970s suggest a serious-absurd relationship between technology and the natural world. They seem to say that the impulse that leads to technological innovation also governs our appreciation of the world around us – one isn’t more ‘natural’ than the other. In this sense, TV can be a metaphor for consciousness: One Candle consists of a 1970s Westinghouse portable TV in which a lit candle (a Buddhist mediation aid) has been placed. The installation TV Garden (1974/2002), which takes up a small room at the Tate, is a dense jungle of tropical plants lit up by the flashing screens of small television sets scattered in the undergrowth. ‘If nature is more beautiful than art,’ Paik wrote, ‘it is not because of its intensity or complexity but because of its variability, abundant abundance, endless quantity.’ To experience TV Garden fully, you need not only to see and hear the screens but to walk around the plants and smell the soil (this isn’t possible at the Tate) – the garden is as carefully designed and maintained as any electronic device.

The TVs are playing Paik’s 1973 film Global Groove, which opens with a presenter announcing that ‘this is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.’ The film was funded by a Rockefeller grant – on his application form Paik claimed he intended to ‘destroy national television’, which he thought was too passive and nationalistic. His frenetic, channel-surfing 28-minute collage of digital imagery took in Japanese Pepsi commercials and experimental theatre. The New York Times obituary of Paik, who died in January 2006, described him as a ‘prophet’ of video art; his predictions of a mass media age seem extraordinary today. In a 1974 essay based on his Rockefeller proposal he wrote that

the mass entertainment TV as we see it now will be divided into, or rather gain many branches and tails of, differentiated video cultures, Picture-Phone, tele-facsimile, two way inter-active TV for shopping, library research, opinion polling, health consultation, bio-communication, inter-office data transmission, and many other variants will turn the TV set into the expanded mixed media telephone system for 1001 new applications, not only for daily convenience but also for the enrichment of life itself … This mini and midi TV will merge with many other paperless information forms – audio cassettes, telex, data transmission, domestic satellite, micro-fiche, private microwave – and eventually the laser-optic carrier band. They all will form a new nuclear energy in information and society-building, which I would call tentatively ‘BROADBAND COMMUNICATION NETWORK’.

How had he got here? Paik was born in Seoul in 1932 and studied classical piano and composition; his thesis at the University of Tokyo was on Schönberg. He moved to Munich in 1956 and became involved in the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. The school was notorious for its embrace of serialism; disciples were known as the ‘dodecaphonic police’. In her catalogue essay, Sook-Kyung Lee traces the articles that Paik wrote about Darmstadt for the Japanese music journal Ongaku Geijutsu, as well as his later involvement in the music scene in Cologne, where he worked at the Studio for Electronic Music.

One of his earliest performances – he called it an ‘action work’ – was staged at Jean-Pierre Wilhelm’s Galerie 22 in Düsseldorf in November 1959. In a letter that year, he explained that Hommage à John Cage: Music for Audiotapes and Piano was composed around three ten-minute movements, each containing a number of cultural references. The first combined Duchamp, Dostoevsky and Kurt Schwitters. ‘It proves,’ he wrote, ‘that the sublime is essentially inseparable from the ugly and comic.’ The second movement was designed to be ‘as boring as possible, like Proust, Palestrina, Zen, Gregorian chant, Missa, Parisian cafés, life, sex and dog staring into the distance’. The third movement, meanwhile, ‘is more philosophy of music than philosophical music’. Quotes from Artaud and Rimbaud resounded from loudspeakers.

The performance also featured the poet Hans Helms, who stood on a ladder reading the score from a roll of toilet paper. Beneath him, according to one reviewer, were ‘two pianos (one of which had no keys), tape recorders, tin cans with stones, a toy car, a plastic train, an egg, a pane of glass, a bottle holding the stump of a candle and a music box’. For the finale, Paik ‘ran about like a madman, sawed through the piano strings with a kitchen knife and overturned the whole thing’. The crowd went wild.

Paik’s main preoccupations are already spelled out in the letter: the link between the beautiful and the ugly or comic; the experience of duration in art; and a rejection of categories – he didn’t want to perform music, he said later, he wanted to ‘expose’ it, to make it visual. Paik was influenced by Cage’s notions of chance and indeterminacy, but he liked to involve his audience. ‘In most indeterminate music, the composer gives the possibility for the indeterminacy or freedom to the interpreter, but not to the audience … [they] cannot fully co-feel the waiting, surprising, disappointment, hesitation, stuttering, expecting, jumping, fleeing, deviation.’ Where Cage ‘prepared’ pianos by placing carefully selected objects (a fork, for instance) on the strings to affect the sound, Paik covered his with all kinds of paraphernalia: one assistant recorded that a single piano was modified with ‘a doll’s head, a hand siren, a cow horn, a bunch of feathers, barbed wire, spoons, a little tower of pfennig coins stuck together, all sorts of toys, photos, a bra, an accordion’. His attitude was more playful, too: in one performance devices hidden around the room – a transistor radio, fan heater, film projector, siren – were activated and deactivated by individual piano keys.

Paik displayed a number of pianos in his exhibition in Wuppertal in 1963. Galerie Parnass had been the scene of the first Fluxus show the year before; Paik went even further, taking over almost the entire building in an attempt to remove the distinction between gallery and place, performer and audience. Of the four pianos displayed in the hallway, the first had its keyboard jammed from beneath: no one could depress the keys. The second was laid on its back and opened up so that visitors could play it by walking on the strings (it was subject to an unprompted act of destruction by Joseph Beuys, which Paik applauded). The third and fourth had parts missing or replaced with disparate devices; their strings were tangled with objects. The show contained a number of different musical installations for visitors to interact with – those that survive are now untouchable gallery pieces, but Lee, who also curated Paik’s Tate Liverpool exhibition in 2010, has worked hard to ensure that the experience of this early work isn’t lost. One wall is given over to a towering image of Paik, shown with his hands clasped behind his back holding a string tethered to a violin. Paik used the violin (which is on display) for one of his 1961 Zen for Walking pieces, dragging it slowly behind him to create random music on the streets of Paris. A number of ‘interactive exhibition copies’ of original works allow visitors to participate.

The Galerie 22 exhibition was the first time Paik showed his most innovative new works: 13 modified televisions. To create Zen for TV (1963) he interrupted the circuit in the cathode-ray tube, producing a single white line running vertically along the screen, like a spinal column of energy; sometimes the image was distorted, enlarged or discoloured. The artist of the future would also have to be a technician, he wrote, able to control and manipulate wires and buttons as easily as paintbrush and oils. In order to take his technological experiments further Paik returned to Tokyo to work with electrical engineers – Japan had the most advanced electronics industry in the world – one of whom, Shuya Abe, became an important collaborator. Together they created the radio-controlled Robot K-456 (1964), named after Mozart’s piano concerto, which has an aluminium foil hat, a microphone for a mouth, an electric fan for a naval, moveable limbs and a winding motor in its pelvis to allow it to lean forward. K-456 appeared in a number of Paik’s performances, its clunky humanoid features (and ability to urinate as well as walk and play recorded sounds) intended as a pastiche of ‘high’ art. Paik and Abe also built an analogue ‘video synthesiser’ that could distort and colourise video images in real time – a patented invention that was adopted by several TV stations.

Paik’s involvement with broadcast technology is the focus of one of the exhibition’s most vivid sections, where a number of videos are played on loop. In the late 1960s, he used a residency at WGBH- TV, Boston’s public television station, to create some of the earliest artworks made specifically for broadcast. Video Commune (Beatles Beginning to End) (1970) is the record of a four-hour-long video collage in which live TV footage was manipulated by the studio crew – and passers-by Paik invited in from the street – using the Paik-Abe synthesiser. Paik somehow persuaded WGBH to transmit it in full. If the TV screen was now a canvas, it was one on which many hands could work. At intervals during the broadcast, a voiceover announced that ‘this is participation TV’ and encouraged viewers at home to play with the dials on their set to adjust the brightness and colour. Those with a black and white TV were told to use a strong magnet to distort the screen image.

On New Year’s Day 1984, Paik produced his first international ‘satellite installation’, Good Morning Mr Orwell. The work involved a link-up between public broadcasters in New York, Paris, Germany and South Korea. Live and taped segments – including Cage stroking a cactus with a feather and Merce Cunningham dancing with satellite-delayed images of himself – were overlaid with graphics and text from 1984 and Orwell’s diaries. The time delay was supposed to create new opportunities (one performer tried to get everyone ‘space yodelling’), but the signal kept cutting out, leaving the participants in the different countries to carry on as best they could. For Paik this was all part of the experiment: he hoped satellite art would achieve ‘a two-way connection between opposites’ and thought that artists and musicians should ‘play with improvisation, indeterminism, echoes, feedbacks and empty spaces’. His next broadcast was just as ambitious. Bye Bye Kipling – another rebuttal – brought together live footage of Lou Reed, kabuki theatre, Issey Miyake, Philip Glass and a marathon in South Korea; it was shown simultaneously in Seoul, Tokyo and New York during the 1986 Asian Games (East could meet West, after all).

Satellite art was a natural extension of Paik’s belief in international creative exchange; it seems right then that the Tate should give considerable space to his responses to Cunningham and Cage, as well as his collaborations with Fluxus, Joseph Beuys and the cellist Charlotte Moorman. Like Paik, Moorman thought that sexuality had been wrongly relegated from classical music, and in February 1967 she was arrested for indecent exposure while performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique topless. Paik responded with a series of sculptures that might maintain her modesty, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), in which the sound created by Moorman’s cello is filtered through a processor to modulate the images appearing on the modified bra she wears. These hybrid works, in which Paik took technology developed for military use and made it adapt to the human, operate on what Marshall McLuhan called ‘the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis’.

Nam June Paik’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ (1993)

‘Sistine Chapel’ (1993)

Paik was offered a residency at Bell Labs in 1967 after writing to them with his idea for an ‘electronic opera’. Only fragments remain – Fortran code printouts, punch cards, images on thermofax paper. Confused Rain, a computer-generated piece in which the letters of ‘confuse’ are printed randomly across a piece of paper, was designed to show the absurdity of ‘having to break down even simulated chaos into individual logical steps’, as Valentina Ravaglia puts it. Paik left in frustration: computers didn’t do what he wanted quickly enough or randomly enough until the 1980s. This work now looks charmingly dated (his tendency to anthropomorphise his electronics was a sort of prescience too), but Paik wasn’t worried about his work continuing to look new: he moved rapidly from project to project, saying he had too many ideas to slow down. Galleries that show 20th-century performance art or mobile artworks have an inherent difficulty in displaying them. The actual objects, though intended to move or be used, are now too fragile or valuable to operate. Are visitors there merely to see the original creations or to have the original experience of watching, touching, even altering them? The Tate doesn’t solve this problem, but the curators have found many inventive ways round it. The exhibition closes with the overwhelming video installation Sistine Chapel, made for the Venice Biennale in 1993. Scores of projectors attached to scaffolding create a kaleidoscope of images across the walls and ceiling of the final room, which hums with the sound of their whirring and smells of warm plastic. Paik wanted his video chapel to be as noisy and bright as possible – graphics and recordings fire off all around you, complete with their glitches and imperfections. The piece hasn’t been seen since the Biennale, and Paik didn’t leave notes for its reconstruction. The arrangement here has been scrupulously mapped by Jon Huffman, one of Paik’s long-serving assistants, and the decision to update the projectors from the original CRT models seems the right one. Paik would certainly have made use of the most advanced technologies: the projectors he took to Venice were so heavy and unwieldy that he paid for all his crew to have an extra egg at breakfast each day.

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