Exhibition: Nam June Paik, Tate Liverpool and FACT, Liverpool, until March 13 2011
© Stefan Arendt, LVR / Medienzentrum Düsseldorf
Don’t go away, but think for a minute that video footage of almost any subject under the sun is only a click or two from your fingertips. To be online in 2010/2011 is to be in a Nam June Paik world.
The Korean-born video artist, who predicted the rise of the internet, is now the subject of major exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and FACT. The shows feature film, video, sculpture and even painting, but television is a recurring theme and medium.
Since he first began talking of its possibilities in the early 70s, Paik would be “quite pleased” with the way the web has developed, according to curator Sook-Kyung Lee.
“I mean he made this term ‘electronic superhighway’ before the internet was formed and he predicted all these technological advances in the future and how that would shape us - even YouTube. That's exactly what he imagined and that's exactly the way he wanted the video to be used by non-artistic, just normal people.”
Paik’s emergence as an international artist coincided with the arrival of film-making equipment in stores. “I think the video camera itself was really important when it first became available and that was in 1965,” says Lee. “I don't think the distinction between film and video was really a big issue for him, but obviously he saw video as really a democratic method for people to make art.”
Lee’s favourite example of such art is the 1989 piece One Candle in which images of a naked flame are projected onto the walls surrounding the candle itself: “It shows what he did really best: by mixing up and juxtaposing different elements, natural things with technological method, and suggesting something quite meditative to think about. So I think it's really a nice piece to say what Paik's art was really about.”
It can now be seen at Tate Liverpool along with more ambitious installations, which involve live fish and plants. Video Fish and TV Garden boast 180 television monitors between them, and are as guaranteed to raise a smile as, say, that clip of a dancing otter you saw last week on the web.
“He was always a very humorous artist and he didn't take things too seriously,” says Lee, who describes these pieces as “witty art using this quite ridiculous TV or video medium.”
Such good humour has helped earn Paik the rank of the most popular people in 20th century art. So from the 60s onwards he was friendly with John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono and even John Lennon. Colleagues and collaborators remember him with great fondness, according to Lee.
Now the British public have their best ever chance to warm to his irreverent art and realise what Paik has done for the international scene. “It would be really great if anyone could appreciate what he did and end up liking that idea of actually making the future,” says Lee. “He mentioned once that the future is now but he was the future - from his point of view at the time.”
Co-curator Laura Sillars at FACT meanwhile talks about the utopian aspect of Paik’s vision: “He believed that anyone should have access to any content, anywhere, and he believed the TV guide should become as thick as the New York telephone directory, because you should be able to see anything from anywhere, and I think the internet has started to deliver on some of that although there's still invisible layers of control.”
© Estate of Nam June Paik
But if the medium is the message, as prevailing 60s wisdom would have it, it begs the question why anyone should leave the house to engage with this mediatised art.
“I think people should watch it on TV at home and on YouTube as well. I wish it was shown on TV. I think it would be amazing,” says Sillars.
She also tells me that Paik campaigned for artists to get into production labs and secured a grant of $12,000 from the Rockerfeller Centre for just such a project in 1973. The New York public access station, Channel 13, is apparently part of the artist’s legacy.
But with an archive of later video work, big screens, roomy seats and plenty of background info, FACT promises to offer the ultimate Nam June Paik viewing experience, not least because his work is so close to the Liverpool gallery’s mission.
“If FACT has a patron saint it would be Nam June Paik,” claims Sillars. “The whole institution that FACT is works into Nam June Paik's legacy.
“He was somebody who pioneered artists getting access to the latest technology. He believed that technology has this utopian potential to get people together, to connect people, to get greater empathy.
“To have this exhibition is a massive deal for us because it's like bringing the saint’s bones home almost. He's a constant point of reference to us as an organisation and our aspirations for what we're trying to do, to bring young artists into access with the best, most interesting technologies that are being developed at the moment.”
Of special interest to Sillars is a later piece called Laser Cone, which goes on show at FACT. As you might guess it is something like a wigwam lit strategically with a light beam.
© Tom Haar
“It creates all these amazing geometric formations," she says. "That might make it sound quite dry but actually you lie underneath it and it’s like being in a trance-like state - so it’s really experiential."
During the last decade of his life Paik worked extensively with lasers, from the time of a stroke in 1996 to his death in 2006. It was an inevitable interest, given the artist’s fascination for sound waves, hertz, and the difference between analogue and digital time.
2010 is the 50th anniversary of the laser, “a nice synchronicity” according to Sillars. In a public art commission to celebrate the current shows, an 800m beam now links up the two venues. Sound and image will travel back and forth via this superhighway. 50 years since Paik emerged as an international artist, the future is still now.
Admission free (Tate £7/5.50). Tate open 10am-5.50pm Tuesday to Sunday and FACT open 11am-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 12pm Sunday). Check web for opening dates over festive period.
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