Nam June Paik

Avant-garde video artist
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The Independent Online

Nam June Paik, possibly the first video artist, was influenced by the experimental music ideas of John Cage and the theatrical multi-media experiments of the Fluxus group. It is significant that, for an artist who worked primarily in visual media, Paik was trained in music, as he retained a musical sensibility in his work, particularly in his collaborations with the cellist Charlotte Moorman.

Born in Seoul in 1932, Paik, the son of a textile manufacturer, fled the Korean War in 1950 with his family, first to Hong Kong, then to Tokyo. He graduated from Tokyo University in 1956 with honours in art and music history, having written a thesis on the serial method of Arnold Schoenberg. Paik moved to Germany that year, first to study in Munich and then at the Freiburg Conservatory, where he studied composition. He also met Karlheinz Stockhausen and worked in the Cologne electronic music studios. This was the usual path for an avant-garde composer at that time, but a meeting with John Cage in 1958 in Darmstadt brought Paik to experimental music.

At Darmstadt, Paik also met George Maciunas, a central figure in the neo-Dadaist arts group Fluxus, based in several European centres and in New York, where artists had taken Cage's classes in experimental composition. Fluxus was a loose association of painters, poets, composers and others (including the musical minimalist La Monte Young, the visual artist George Brecht, and the performance artist Yoko Ono) who worked in "intermedia": happenings, action scores, and other activities that fell between genres. The group was identified as a group mainly through its publications, which could include boxes of artefacts, postcards and other mail art, as well as books and scores.

Paik's approach to performance was often emotive and occasionally approached violence, although delivered with a typical joviality. In a 1960 event in Cologne attended by Cage, Paik jumped from the stage, poured shampoo into Cage's hair and cut off his tie. Paik's approach to the prepared piano was unlike Cage's precise manipulations of timbre made by attaching objects to the strings. The piano preparations in Paik's first television piece, Exposition of Musik-Electronic Television (1963), were, one critic noted, "like mutilations", while his televisions often displayed skewed images as the result of his manipulations using magnets and other interference.

The fifth in the Danger Music series by the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, is not by Higgins but by Paik, and is potentially the most dangerous one, asking the performer to climb inside the vagina of a living whale. Whereas Brecht, Young, Ono, Higgins and other Fluxus artists wrote action scores that could be performed by others, scores by Paik (and some scores written for him) often were only performable by Paik himself.

However, Paik considered himself a composer: "I never use therefore this holy word 'happening' for my 'concerts', which are equally snobbish as those of Franz Liszt," he wrote in his 1963 Fluxus publication Post Music: the monthly review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism. Paik's proposed "post music" was a pun on its delivery through the post as well as its status as art after, or "post", music.

Paik's most famous collaboration began in 1964, when he was working in New York, in a series of pieces written for the cellist Charlotte Moorman and himself, using multiple television monitors. In some of these the cello was attacked, sequestered in a zippered bag and frozen in ice; in another Moorman bowed Paik's back instead of the cello. Moorman was arrested for her bare-breasted performance of Paik's Opéra Sextronique (1967), written to protest that music, unlike literature and art, had not embraced explicit sexual subjects. In another piece, TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), Moorman was at once the artefact and creative partner. Moorman wore a bra that had small television monitors on its cups (literally, television as the "boob tube") and manipulated the images on the monitors by playing the cello.

Paik is best known for his installations of multiple televisions, as in his media tower of 1,003 televisions, The More the Better, for the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, but he embraced, if not pioneered, most aspects of video art, albeit more in the form of video than its content. In 1969-70, he and Shuya Abe built a video synthesiser.

He used a closed-circuit camera for TV Buddha (1974), in which a statue of the Buddha faced the camera image of the statue on a small television (later several televisions), as though the statue were contemplating its own image. Good Morning, Mr Orwell (1984) was broadcast by satellite from Paris and New York, while Video Arbor (1990) was a public sculpture in Philadelphia.

At Paik's funeral in New York, attendees remembered his first famous event by cutting off each other's ties. Yoko Ono led the event, cutting the tie of his nephew and studio director, Ken Paik Hakuta.

Virginia Anderson