Tate Modern leans into its avant garde edge with this big, pleasurable sweep through Korean-born international artist Nam June Paik’s career. Paik was born in 1932 and died in 2006. Living and working in Japan, Germany and the US, he explored music, film, performance, theatre and the media in a long career notable for his collaborations with longstanding pals including Joseph Beuys, musician John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Initially, Paik was interested in chance, malfunction and accidental breakage. In the 1960s he doctored old pianos so that playing them would result in clanking and dud notes, while in Zen for Wind in 1963 he strings random objects from a plank so hitting them produces different sounds. These early works have a charming hint of Pritt Stick, yellowing paper and unintended rust, yet even so there are dashes of sophisticated invention. In Random Access, users can run a receptor over bits of magnetic tape stuck to the wall to produce chopped-up, distorted sounds.
Paik’s work with the radical, experimental Fluxus group involved hosting happenings based around performing music (or anti-music, depending on your tastes), poetry or drama. Luckily, he and his cronies had such humongous egos that they memorialised everything they did, so there are endless posters, booklets, flyers and photographs of the group, formally dressed but doing ridiculous things with great glee. Paik doesn’t abuse his audience. Instead he invites everyone in to participate.
In the Fluxus group, as with all Paik’s collaborators, it’s starkly noticeable that there are almost no women. One 1963 piece, Paik’s Fluxus Champion Contest, is literally a willy contest: men piss into a bucket while singing the national anthem, and whoever’s still singing and peeing at the end wins. It’s depressing. These gifted guys want to dissolve every rule, except that of patriarchy, of the men’s club. There is a large room dedicated to footage of Paik’s collaborative performances with his friend, the cellist Charlotte Moorman – which resulted in her becoming notorious as the “topless cellist”.
Paik’s work crystallises very obviously once he leaves Fluxus behind. From the early 1970s, his interest in media, entertainment and communication matures, while the technology itself develops enough to be responsive to his ideas. Paik predicted a globalised, synchronised media movement resembling a “new nuclear energy”, a “broadband” form of conveying information along a simultaneous-delivery “superhighway”. For him, screens spoke of play, connection and high-culture possibility, not surveillance and addiction. They offered international creative collaboration and discovery; he didn’t see them as a corrupting or corruptible force.
For anyone who came of age in the 1970s, saw the MTV era burst into full colour and is now stuck well into the current digital revolution, this retrospective will be a strange nostalgia trip, a story about the radical 60s generation segueing into the yuppie era.
Paik’s domed TV screens and old, boxy equipment demystify technology and make it approachable. His TV Garden is a mid-70s installation in which TV sets are embedded among ferns and shrubs, playing cheesy performance clips from around the world. They do not evoke a brain-frying media hellscape; rather, it’s like watching hotel telly on a loop, restful and kitsch. Indeed, many of Paik’s film projects are soft, painterly. In TV Buddha from 1974, a stone Buddha gazes at a filmed image of itself; a burning candle is filmed and projected on to the walls in One Candle, from 1989. In the 1964 work Zen for Film an empty film reel plays, flecked with scratches and bits of dust; and in the show’s sole Instagram-bait moment, Three Camera Participation from 1969, cameras film passers-by and project their outline in different, overlapping colours.
The exhibition prompts us to do a bit of cultural dialling-back to recognise how cutting edge Paik was, because what was radical then is the norm now: international simultaneous broadcasts, the combination of entertainment and politics, performance and commentary, the idea of film or TV as art forms in which influences can come from anywhere.
Paik innovated in ways that were highly sophisticated and that we now take for granted. In 1969 he was an artist in residence at a Boston TV station, where his experiments with interrupting and interfering with broadcasts through distortion, colour effects and live editing were adopted by mainstream TV studios immediately. His core method is one of interaction, even when not working with humans: a magnet on top of a TV warps its image, while a copper coil affixed to the screen churns a broadcast by Nixon. The more lies the former president spouts, the more the image curdles. It’s one of very few political statements in the show.
The 1980s are when Paik creates his definitive work. The collaborators and the product get much slicker. In MTV-ready video montages such as Bye Bye Kipling (from 1986) and 1988’s Wrap Around the World, Issey Miyake, Lou Reed, Keith Haring and David Bowie stage dance, music, fashion and theatre pieces, which draw from global influences and resist crude dichotomisation into “eastern” or “western” influence.
To encounter Paik’s work in this huge, informative exhibition is to celebrate the pleasure of experimentation, recognise that all art forms are connected, remember how important cosmopolitanism and international collaboration are – and how revolutionary the global media once seemed. Put away your phone and have a wander through Paik’s hopeful, creatively sophisticated vision of how things could have been.