The Worlds of Nam June Paik

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Entering the darkened Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for The Worlds of Nam June Paik, the viewer is enveloped into an electronic universe created by a visionary multi-media artist. The first American retrospective since 1982 of the work of this pioneering Korean artist allows audiences to experience the singular ways that Paik has used the electronic moving image to combine art and technology through television projects, videotapes, installations, performances, collaborations and sculptures.

After four decades the 68 year-old’s work continues to be a thought provoking, sensory thrill ride. Nothing demonstrates this better than the site-specific centerpiece of the exhibition, "Modulations in Sync (2000)," which transforms the museum’s rotunda into a multimedia extravaganza. The installation is comprised of several mind-boggling components. In "Jacob’s Ladder," a green laser projection passes through a seven-story waterfall that begins at the top of the museum and falls to the rotunda floor. Through the use of mirrors, the laser is refracted into a continuous zigzag pattern that is transfixing. The cascading water causes the light beam to gently fluctuate. In "Sweet and Sublime," a laser projects a changing display of geometric shapes onto the rotunda ceiling. On the floor, 100 video monitors facing upwards, emit a rapid-fire array of Paik’s video imagery on multiple channels. Six large video screens mounted on the ramps of the rotunda mimic the video show on the floor. Multiple perspectives of the work are possible along the ramps that circle the space. The dramatic scene makes the viewer feel contained within a grand futuristic experiment.

Featured along the ramps are Paik’s pivotal works from the 1960s and 70s. In "TV Garden" (1974), the artist combines a myriad of live plants with dozens of single channel video monitors nestled amongst them. The monitors show a multitude of scenes with discombobulated sounds. The result is a surrealistic collage that creates an unexpected blend of technology and nature, a commingling of disparate elements that jolts the mind. "Real Fish/Live Fish" (1982) is a humorous piece in which a retro-television filled with water and small fish with a video camera facing it is projected onto a second television. "Video Fish" (1975), is a bizarre but strangely soothing array of fish-filled tanks, each installed in front of a monitor. The monitors flash such images as Nureyev dancing and jets soaring, as the fish calmly pass by.

"Three Elements" (1997-2000) in the darkened High Gallery, is made up of lasers, mirrored chambers, prisms, motors and smoke; it’s a science fiction sort of imagery, looking like a tribunal of higher intelligence forms.

The museum’s Tower 7 Gallery houses a selection of additional sculptural and interactive works, including pieces made for Paik’s greatest collaborator, the performance artist Charlotte Moorman. In one performance, Moorman had two television tubes housed in Plexiglas cases taped to her breasts. Another piece for Moorman, ‘TV Cello," (1971) is composed of three picture tubes of various sizes also inside Plexiglas. As with "TV Bra," the monitors in "TV Cello" showed videotape, live closed circuit video, television or, alternatively, are linked to the strings of the cello to enable a mingling of images and sounds.

Born in Seoul, Paik originally pursued a career in music. From 1956 to 1964 he lived in Germany where his interest shifted to multi-media art. His first solo show, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, was mounted in 1963. Paik moved to New York in 1964 because he saw the city as a cultural haven and a constant source of inspiration. A 1996 stroke severely limited Paik’s mobility, but his grand vision for this retrospective indicates that his creative and innovative gifts are undiminished.

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