Now and Zen: Nam June Paik’s Magnetic Mirror in the Face of Boredom
Sound Artist and Assistant Professor
Now that I’m almost sixty, it’s time for me to practice a bit of dying. People of my age in olden times in Korea were out in the mountains accompanied by a geomancer in search of a propitious site for a grave. However, I’ve no money for that and land prices became so steep, let’s live and die by an ersatz.
The one good fortune in my life was that I got to know John Cage while he was considered more of a gadfly than a guru and Joseph Beuys when he was still an eccentric hermit in Düsseldorf. Therefore it was possible for me to associate myself on equal footing with these two senior masters as colleagues even after their stardom.
(Paik, Nam June. 1986)1
DEATH comes to the average star in fitful stages… Some astronomers, for example, now think that the more complex and dazzling patterns of the gaseous clouds are created by interactions between the aging star and unseen companions, either a large planet or another small star in the vicinity. Such an idea is conceivable because many stars come in pairs and large planet-like objects have recently been detected around other stars.
(Whitford, John Noble. The New York Times, 1997)2
When Nam June Paik passed away last month, his obituary in The New York Times noted that he was “a lifelong Buddhist.”3 I had known and worked with Paik for more than 13 years. While I can imagine that statement to be true, I had never heard Nam June speak of his religious beliefs. To the world, Paik was one of the most visionary artists of the second half of the twentieth century; on a more personal side he was a very practical man whose work was always foremost in his mind. Paik always let you know just what he needed and not necessarily much more. When I was working in SoHo in the early 90s I would run into Nam June crossing Broadway at Spring Street. He would check his watch (pinned somewhere on his shirt), and let me know that he had “45 seconds to meet” and that there were many things to discuss before he got to Mercer Street (a short block away). If Paik was a lifelong Buddhist it was one of many things that I believe he was and was not. His is a career of absolute certainty filled with wonderful but also challenging contradictions.
Nam June Paik was born on July 30, 1932. In 1949, with the onset of the Korean War, his family moved to Hong Kong, and then soon after, settled in Tokyo. Following his interest in experimental music and the avant-garde, Paik went to Germany in 1956 to study music history and composition. Traveling to Cologne and to Darmstadt, Paik encountered for the first time some of the major figures in the fields of experimental and electronic music – most significantly for Paik, John Cage. Paik moved to New York in 1964. Before arriving in the U.S. Paik’s body of work was already significant. He of course went on to be one of the most important and influential technology-based artists of the 20th century.
In 1991, the museum director David Ross asked Paik whether he now considered himself to be an “American artist”. Paik responded “I don’t see much sense in categorizing artists by national origin.”4 Throughout his life Paik would speak of being proud of his Korean heritage but he was also often critical of Asian culture. In the same discussion with Ross, Paik states “as an Asian, I give credit to Western Civilization, which has the dialectic power to regenerate itself constantly, whereas Asia’s history is yoked with stagnation.”5
In preparation for this panel, I began by questioning the affects Paik, as an Asian-American artist has had on Western contemporary art. More and more, I have found myself instead looking at the effects that Asia had on Nam June and the strategies that he used to integrate and re-consider his own Asian identity.
It is easy to imagine that there was some bitterness for Paik in regards to the Korea of his past. He was not allowed back into the country (being considered a draft-dodger) until 1984, after 34 years of exile. It is also possible to imagine guilt or at least conflict in not returning to the country of his childhood. “We are really one of the most corrupted families in Korea. My grandfather made first modern factory there – textiles. Then, in Depression, we became very poor. Later, we have two steel factories in North Korea, but in 1945 they became ‘people’s factories.’ It was all luck and unluck. Sometimes I felt I was on the wrong side, because I had such radical thoughts.”6
One could argue that Paik came of age not with his family in Asia (Korea, Hong Kong and Tokyo) but in the art and music cultures of Europe and the United States. John Cage often spoke of his interests in Asian culture, particularly Zen Buddhism. Tomkins notes in his 1975 profile from The New Yorker, “Paik tried to learn something about Oriental music and Oriental religion, neither of which had interested him until he met Cage.”7 Nam June while ever paying tribute to Cage was also critical at times. In a letter from 1972 Paik writes, “John Cage has out-asianized himself more than any Asians.”8 If John Cage was a mentor, and perhaps extended family in the most Asian sense, he was also the figure whom Paik would emulate, and then in an arguably Oedipal gesture, castrate (as art-father) in the act of leaping off the stage and cutting off Cage’s tie in the now infamous 1960 performance of Etude for Pianoforte.
While Paik was remarkably prolific he will perhaps be remembered most for his fast-paced, color saturated videotapes and installations such as the landmark work for television, Global Groove (1973) but also his far quieter and less colorful closed-circuit video sculpture, TV Buddha (1974). TV Buddha, along with previous works such as Zen for Film (1964), referenced Asian culture in title and/or form, were often minimal works that I have always felt contained a beauty but also an undercurrent of humor or even sarcasm. In TV Buddha a statue of the Buddha stares into a video monitor which captures the live image of that same figure and the space behind it. The television screen is the Buddha’s mirror. The statue and the reflected image are still. Irving Sandler writes, “TV Buddha is a media star and a couch potato in a Buddha Sitcom. But it’s not a one-line joke. What else can it mean? Does it demean an established religious icon in the spirit of Fluxus iconoclasm? Or, is it spiritual: the Divine looking at the Divine without interference? Instantaneous holy feedback. God using electronic media to contemplate Himself. Why Not?”9
TV Buddha and a number of other works from the decade that precede it by Paik exist as singular actions or gestures. Referring back to Paik’s quote that “Asia’s history is yoked with stagnation” one might classify this and other works as specifically Asian. In Zen for Film, an hour of clear film leader is projected showing only the white light and accumulated bits of dust picked up by the film and caught in the projector’s light. In Zen for TV (1963) a single horizontal line cuts down the otherwise empty space of a television turned on its side. In Zen for Head (1962) the artist dips his head in black paint and uses his hair as a brush to paint a long single line. Where these quiet works seem to refer back to Paik’s past, his works for television including the aforementioned Global Groove, and others including the satellite trilogy from the 1980s, Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984), Bye Bye Kipling (1986) and Wrap Around the World (1988) by title and by deed say goodbye to the past and refer to a global culture, of a world empowered by, not held back by technology.
In 1963 Paik wrote: “Zen is anti-avant-garde, anti-frontier spirit, anti-Kennedy, Zen is responsible of asian poverty. How can I justify ZEN, without justifying asian poverty??”10
I in no means wish to say (nor could I ever claim such authority to know) that Paik was ashamed of his Asian heritage but it did seem to be a complex relationship that he had. And, just as he was practical in his everyday life, he knew that his heritage was something that he could put to work in his art. Perhaps one could say that he had a creative tension with his past – a tension that inspired a great number of wonderful videos and ideas. While the television pieces such as Global Groove were considered landmarks in the medium, I find the “still” works to resonate just as strongly if not more. Cage too (perhaps not unsurprisingly) favored these works: “the most musical of Paik’s works are those for which he has given no performance directions, for which the accompaniment is simply the sounds of the environment. I am thinking of the ones which are just sculpture: TV Chair, TV Buddha for instance.”11
When I told Mina that I would be speaking about Paik, she encouraged me also to find a tie in to my own work as a sound artist. The previous quote brought me back to a couple of questions that I’ve started to think about. I’ve often wondered about the effect that Paik has had on me as an artist. Among other things, just as Cage brought Nam June around to an interest in Asian culture and spirituality, I came to be interested in Cage through Nam June. In all honesty, I am also very interested in and influenced by the so-called American Oriental music that Nam June refers to. I have been influenced by La Monte Young, perhaps more for his ideas than the sound of his works. But among Young’s colleagues, friends, enemies and followers there has been a great investment in the drone for example. I am thinking about composers such as Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros but also the French minimal composer Eliane Radigue whose work is very much rooted in her Buddhist studies and the quiet sound works of Steve Roden. The composers who I mention have also instilled drone-based compositions with a tension that keep them from falling into the new age fluff that Nam June may be speaking of.
Interestingly, I did a performance recently on a double bill with a choreographer. My piece included a long shifting drone that actually was the result of stretching out a live recording of Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven.” The only mention in the Washington Post review was that my performance was “inscrutable.”
Influence might then be thought of as a very analog form. Information comes as a signal flow from one person’s set of filters to another. Andrew Deutsch, a friend and collaborator of mine gave an informal talk to my students recently. Andrew and I were preparing to do a performance with analog and digital hardware as well as digital software. I was using a small photocell that translates light frequencies into sound. I was also pointing a small camera at those lights. Andrew was feeding the video signal from my micro-camera into two video synthesizers, including a “wobbulator” that Andrew had hand-built based on an original Paik design. Andrew talked to my students about Chinese medicine’s focus on energy flow and how that might be a valid analogy for the flow of our electronics and synthesizer patches. He summed it up in a recent e-mail to me:
“In Chinese medicine a meridian is a pathway for Chi. Chi is the "life force" in the body. A chi point is a place where one can contact chi by rubbing or inserting needles. Energy gets blocked at various chi points, this causes illness.
Thus the question in Chinese medicine is "the nature of the block".
In video and sound, it seems we invent ways to bind up or block energy, then interact with that blockage in creative ways. The signal path equals the meridians, the electricity is chi, and the interface gives us the chi points.
Nam June found ways to block/release the frequencies of TV and gave us the Paik/Abe colorizer, the wobbulator...”
Above all, Nam June taught me to see a work, or a composition or a performance as a very concentrated output but not necessarily from the point of “composing” or rehearsing. I approach each work as a form of improvisation, which should not be deeply meddled with after the fact. What is so extraordinary when one is working with analog systems is the continued experience that analog circuits are very different than digital. They really are much more alive. As much as others have told me, it is always a surprise to see how much an analog synthesizer or filterbank has a mind of it’s own. You can remember certain settings, certain patches but you’ll never get back to that same sound twice. Rather than fight the system the best thing one can do is to enjoy and accept it.
From what I’ve been told, Paik’s funeral was a mixture of color, words and a bit of frenzy, with perhaps elements of the energy he brought Etude for Pianoforte and Global Groove but it also had a bit of quiet and stillness. In fact, it sounds to have been a strikingly bizarre juxtaposition of the two as the funeral was an open casket ceremony that ended with the audience cutting their ties off and placing them on the resting body of Nam June. In life, like his work, he was colorful (in recent years Nam June was very often seen wearing beautiful iridescent scarves) and generally in constant motion. When he wasn’t moving, he was sleeping; anywhere from at home to on-stage for a panel such as this one. I tend to think of Paik sleeping as an image in black and white, a vision not unlike his TV Buddha. It’s hard to say how fitting the final image is, of Nam June as a sleeping Buddha covered in other peoples’ colorful ties, but I am told that one had to be there.
Figure 1. Nam June Paik painting happy faces, May 2000.
Figure 4. Face Collage Sub Rosa 1,
This is one of a couple of mock-ups for the
Figure 5. Face Collage Sub Rosa 2,
Figure 6. Paik’s Peak.
Figure 7. Symphonie postcard (front).
Figure 8. World so boring from the NY Times.
Figure 9. Stephen Vitiello during panel presentation with video running silently.
My Head, 1996
This is an audio piece by Stephen Vitiello from 1996. It incorporates a home recording of Paik and Shigeko speaking to Stephen about David Tudor’s recent death and the Tudor’s piano which was reportedly in such a humid environment that mushrooms were growing on it. Paik mentions that Stephen should buy it but first Paik would need to give him a raise.
During the presentation of the above paper, the audio piece My Head Was Spinning was played but there was also an ongoing silent projection of videos from the compilation:
Rare Performance Documents 1961-1994 Volume 2:
Hand and Face 1961, 1:42 min, b&w, silent
Fluxus Sonata at Anthology Film Archives 1975, 6:12 min, b&w, sound
Violin Dragging, Brooklyn, NY 1975, 1:37 min, color, sound
Tribute to GM (aka Video Venus) 1978, 2:56 min, color
Nam June Paik with The Bad Brains 1991, 1:19 min, color, sound
An Evening with Nam June Paik at the Kitchen 1994, 4:35 min, color, sound
Related URLs for this essay, selected by Stephen Vitiello.
(this is the complete Zen for Film. Beware as it is slow to load)
1 Paik, Nam June. Beuys Vox: 1961-1986 (Seoul, Korea: Won Gallery/Hyundai Gallery, 1986)
2 Whitford, John Noble. “The Spectacular Shudders of Dying Stars,” The New York Times, December 23, 1997
3 Smith, Roberta. “Nam June Paik, 73, Dies; Pioneer of Video Art Whose Work Broke Cultural Barriers,” The New York Times, January 31, 2006
4 Ross, David. “A Conversation with Nam June Paik” from Nam June Paik: Video Time—Video Space (Harry N Abrams, 1993)
5 Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles: Video Visionary” The New Yorker, May 5, 1975
6 Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles: Video Visionary” The New Yorker, May 5, 1975
7 Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles: Video Visionary” The New Yorker, May 5, 1975
8 Paik, Nam June. Nam June Paik: Videa ‘n’ Videology 1959-1973 (Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1973)
9 Sandler, Irving. “Nam June Paik’s Boobtube Buddha.” Nam June Paik: eine DATA base (Distributed Art Pub Inc., 1994)
10 Paik, Nam June. “afterlude to the EXPOSITION of EXPERIMENTAL TELEVISION, 1963, March” reprinted in Nam June Paik: Videa ‘n’ Videology 1959-1973, Everson Museum of Art
11 Cage, John. “On the Work of Nam June Paik by John Cage” from Nam June Paik: Video Time—Video Space
12 Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles: Video Visionary” The New Yorker, May 5, 1975
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