Nam June Paik: an avant-garde genius and his ‘topless cellist’ collaborator commemorated at Tate Modern
By James Brewer
Visionary artist Nam June Paik was among the first to foresee the rise of a new mass media as a many-headed Goliath, to hail advances in robotics, and to envisage an internet which in his words would be the ‘electronic super-highway.’
Super-creatively, he seized on transformational technologies as a springboard for installations and global connectivity, at the same time initiating scandalous “happenings.” Born in South Korea and working in Japan, Germany and the US, Nam June Paik (1932-2006) was an innovator who remains an inspiration for artists, musicians and performers everywhere.
Tate Modern, in a new exhibition to which his name alone suffices as a title, affords the opportunity for today’s tech-savvy generations to enter his buzzing, whirring realm of experimentation and representation. The world was different then, but Paik’s insight was bang up to the moment and beyond.
For a long while, though, a good few of the installations and performances this charismatic character mounted at the boundaries of theatre and visual art relied on a human invention that has its modern origins in the 16th century: the cello.
Thanks to his beloved musician friend and collaborator, Charlotte Moorman, the cello lent its pitch to the avant-garde. In this exhibition, there a spacious gallery is devoted to her story, as an accomplished instrumentalist who helped conceive and implement in terms of the cello many of their ideas.
Her bold and daring expressivity resulted in her acclamation by some as the Joan of Arc of new music, while after one of her avant-garde New York performances the press dubbed her “the topless cellist.”
Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman were masters of the abrupt and sometimes absurdist juxtaposition. The former’s stream of inventiveness is worthy of awe. Charlotte is to be admired for her panache, showmanship and technique and she will be remembered with emotion, for her career was ended too soon by illness.
Only in the last few years is Charlotte being feted as a practitioner of equal distinction with some of the great names with whom she worked – people who upset conventional society in the 1960s such as composer John Cage, Yoko Ono, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and sculptor, painter and performance artist Joseph Beuys.
Charlotte astutely identified the nature of the era when she said in 1967: “With the assassination of Kennedy, the war, the bomb — well, in times like this you just can’t expect the kind of art you had before.”
Organised by Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nam June Paik is the most comprehensive survey in the UK of that artist’s work, assembling more than 200 works in a panoply of flashing light, colour and asymmetric sound.
Paik’s collaboration with Moorman embodied a repertoire of provocative performances which she performed at various times in an electric bikini, topless, bottomless and fully nude. Through video and photos, we relive some of these remarkable events.
Orthodox audiences were outraged when Paik argued that “sex is under-developed in music as opposed to literature and optical art.”
Paik and Moorman thus launched Robot Opera at the second annual New York Avant-Garde Festival in 1964, including semi-nude performances. A remote-controlled robot skilfully made from odds and ends, Robot K-456, which turns up in this exhibition, accompanied Charlotte’s cello playing with recordings of speeches by John F Kennedy. Paik had constructed the robot in Japan with the help of electronic engineer Shuya Abe.
In 1965 Moorman performed Paik’s Cello Sonata No 1 for Adults Only in conjunction with his first solo exhibition in America. Two years later, she was in Paik’s Opéra Sextronique at a small theatre near Times Square in New York, at one point wearing an “electric bikini” with tiny, twinkling lights, and at another naked from the waist up. Police stormed the stage and arrested her for public indecency. She and Paik spent the night in jail, and the New York Times dubbed her “the topless cellist.”
The duo followed up with a series of “television sculptures,” TV Bra for Living Sculpture, TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses which were worn and played by Moorman. The bra, on display at Tate Modern, projected images of the audience. Like some of his other constructions, it consists of a mix of paraphernalia: video tubes, televisions, rheostat (an electrical instrument used to control a current), foot switches, plexiglass boxes, vinyl straps, cables and copper wires.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Charlotte trained as a cellist from the age of 10 and later won a place at the Juilliard School. In the New York milieu she met Yoko Ono, with whom she was to share a room, and other young lights of the avant-garde scene. For her final concert in her post-graduate year, she chose to perform a work by the radical Cage.
She was introduced to Nam June Paik in 1964 by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), and Paik saw the free-spirited Moorman as the ideal partner for his experimental, provocative enterprises.
A born show-person, the fearless Moorman loved performing in the new genre. Her instruments included a Neon Cello made from plexiglass, neon tubing, and electrical parts; a Syringe Cello, made from morphine syringes; and a felt-covered cello designed by Beuys.
Clichés were parodied in the partnership’s music-and-action scores. Her body, cello and gestures were integrated with the props he devised for her, and videos show her treating his persona as her instrument, for instance tracing her bow across his back. In TV Bed from 1972, she bowed the cello as she lay on a bed of large TV monitors.
Both were leading members of Fluxus, an international network of avant-garde artists, composers, designers and poets. One of his ‘sculptures’ is Fluxus Fleet, in which a line of old-fashioned household irons is presented as though it were a convoy of battleships.
The collaboration lasted almost to the final hours before Moorman died from cancer in 1991 at the age of 57, after which Paik set up the installation Room for Charlotte Moorman, movingly reproduced at Tate Modern. Suspended from the ceiling are gowns she wore during their joint performances, and there are props, videos, and photos from their three-decades of collaboration.
Paik constantly sought to bring out the connections between art and technology. Tate Modern opens the exhibition with TV Garden dated 1974/2002. The large-scale installation comprises some 50 television sets of varying sizes ‘planted’ in a garden of live, lush foliage.
Paik noted that people would see plants and TVs together as a ‘paradox,’ but, for him, it was important to show that the two are connected. Far from being opposed to ecology, in this case television was shown to be part of it.
Illustrating what has come to be the dizzying content of mass media, the dozens of screens switch between many genres, from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to chants from the beat poet Allen Ginsberg to Nigerian dance performance to Japanese commercials.
Paik had begun experimenting with TV in his art in the early 1960s. His first solo exhibition in 1963 featured 13 manipulated TV sets. Later, he would build robots out of TVs and direct his own broadcasts. Bakelite Robot, from 2002, is a sculpture of a robot constructed from nine vintage Bakelite radio sets, black, red and orange in colour, joined into a humanoid shape that includes a head, torso, arms and legs. He bought the radios from thrift stores and markets.
Paik saw technology as a way of connecting beyond national borders and cultural differences. He made the point that most innovations were first developed for military purposes and he wanted to take technology closer to humanity.
He experimented with TV, broadcasting, synthesisers and robots – all the inner workings of the technology he appropriates are on view – and was one of the first artists to use video as art. He often made robots out of working TVs and we see examples of his earliest manipulated television sets.
Decades ago, he recognised television was a way to reach people no matter where they lived in the world. In Paik’s future, TV sets would eventually become a “mixed media telephone system for 1,001 new applications.” You could watch shows, make video calls, go shopping and much more. “In the future,” anyone could easily make and share a video, just as is now commonplace via YouTube and similar services.
In a 1974 essay, he had proposed the building of ‘Electronic Super-Highways’ to connect faraway places through satellites, cables and fibre optics. He was over-optimistic though in predicting that video-teleconferencing would “drastically reduce air travel, and along with it the chaotic shuttling of airport buses through city streets – forever!”
Paik was not the first to predict a worldwide digital network, but he was perhaps the first to understand its repercussions for day-to-day communications, foreshadowing not just the Internet, but also apps like Skype and FaceTime.
A room is dedicated to screening four of Paik’s ambitious satellite videos with its eclectic content including “the first live satellite jam session” across the oceans and airwaves.
In the four live TV broadcasts, made between 1973 and 1988, Paik predicted that it would be possible to access world events at the touch of a button, now a phenomenon taken for granted. The first broadcast, Global Groove, opened with the announcement: “This is a glimpse of a new world when you will be able to switch on every TV channel in the world and TV guides will be as thick as the Manhattan telephone book.” Paik’s final satellite broadcast Wrap around the World reached more than 50m viewers in 10 countries.
Paik had taken private piano lessons since his high school years and studied composition. Moving to Germany in 1956 he continued his studies in musicology, philosophy and art history and worked for the West German radio station WDR, which featured avant-garde composers including Stockhausen who was experimenting with audio synthesisers, along with John Cage. Tate presents material from Paik’s first solo exhibition, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, in Wuppertal, in 1963.
The exhibition goes on to document the unconventional shape-shifter’s challenging mutilation of musical instruments such as the ‘prepared pianos’, covered with barbed wire, or with keys glued down or blocked by a wooden plank under them.
He identified sustainability as a vital issue. In 1980 he was asked: “If you were elected president, how would you solve the world’s problems?” His answers would resonate with today’s climate change campaigners: he would “make oil obsolete” and use information as an energy source. Globally, we are using too much fossil fuel but not getting enough spirituality, he declared. “We need worldwide dieting. Lose weight.”
A video installation entitled simply Nixon, conceived in 1965 exemplifies how he identified politicians with verbal and physical distortions and manipulative mass media images.
The installation, updated using modern circuitry and voltage control in 2002, has two identical television monitors screening footage of former US president Richard Nixon including his inaugural address, press conferences on Vietnam and Watergate, and his resignation speech. Visual distortion is switched back and forth between the two televisions, pointing to the role of individuals in positions of influence and the ways in which they make use of popular broadcasting to mediate and shape their rhetoric.
Nixon is one of the works that present a deliberately engineered alteration of the received broadcast image. Paik regarded this cutting and pasting of sound and image as the future of artistic production.
Some works demonstrate the influence of Zen, Taoism and wider Buddhist philosophies. An early work shows he considered the moon “a symbol of truth and enlightenment.” He was not a Buddhist but was influenced by Zen teachings.
The exhibition culminates with the full-room, kaleidoscopic installation Sistine Chapel, recreated for the first time since the German pavilion won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale in 1993. An homage to the connections between Europe and Asia, it was inspired by Marco Polo’s journeys to the East.
Nam June Paik is curated by Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, senior curator, international art (Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational), Tate, and Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with Valentina Ravaglia (Tate) and Andrea Nitsche-Krupp (San Francisco MOMA). It will tour to the San Francisco institution and other venues in the US, the Netherlands and Singapore.
Captions in detail (all images© Estate of Nam June Paik):
Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses. 1971. Photograph, gelatine silver print. Lent by the Peter Wenzel Collection, Germany.
TV Bra for Living Sculpture. 1969. Video tubes, televisions, rheostat, foot switches, plexiglass boxes, vinyl straps, cables, copper wire; single-channel video, black and white. Courtesy of the Estate of Nam June Paik.
TV Cello. 1971. Installation view, Tate Modern, 2019.Three cathode-ray tubes, acrylic boxes, three television casings, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan and stool. Walker Art Center, TB Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992, Minneapolis. Formerly in the collection of Otto Piene and Elizabeth Goldring, Massachusetts.
Self-Portrait, 2005. Single channel video installation with 10’’ LCD colour monitor. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Phyllis C Wattis Fund for Major Accessions. Photo Katherine Du Tiel.
Nam June Paik. Zurich 1991. Photo Timm Rautert.
Robot K-456. 1964. 20-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminium profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. Courtesy Friedrich Christian Flick Collection in Hamburger Bahnhof.
TV Garden. 1974-1977 (2002). Single-channel video installation with live plants and colour television monitors. Courtesy Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.
Magnet TV. 1965. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchased with funds from Dieter Rosenkranz.
Nixon. 1965-2002. Video, two monitors. Tate. Purchased with funds provided by Hyundai Motor Co.
Nam June Paik, an exhibition presented in the Eyal Ofer Galleries at Tate Modern, runs until February 9, 2020.