[FOUNTAIN]Lose language, gain art

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[FOUNTAIN]Lose language, gain art

Words, even compliments like a "pioneer" or "genius," are useless in describing a great artist. In order to truly understand Paik Nam-june, a Korean-born video artist, you should look at his sloppy signature. Mr. Paik recently sent his to the Gyeonggi provincial government for a signboard; the province plans to build a museum named for him by 2004.

The letters in the signature have their own ways of expressing themselves. They are not aligned. Some people may wonder whether he really meant to have that signature hanging outside the museum building forever. But upon a closer look, you can find many interesting things about his signature. It looks like the work of an artist who had a stroke and cannot keep his hand from trembling, or that of a barely literate child, for whom writing is still a struggle. In fact, Mr. Paik is both. He has not yet let go of his artistic spirit despite his old age and illness, and he still is a child at heart.

What attracts my attention most about the signature is the second syllable of his given name, which attests to Mr. Paik's five decades of absence from Korea. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Mr. Paik went to Japan to study in 1950 at the age of 19. He later moved to Germany and then settled in the United States. He has had only a few chances to use his mother tongue for more than half a century. He is more familiar with Japanese and Chinese characters, since his wife is Japanese. So maybe it is natural that he sticks to the old usage of Korean letters, and wrote the second syllable of his given name as "jyune," not "june," the modern spelling. His language skill in Korean is at a similar level; he lost his grip on the honorifics that Koreans use in talking to seniors. He used the familiar forms when, after 40 years, he was reunited with his mentor, Shin Chae-tuk, the late pianist.

His nomad-like life and isolation may have served as a fount for his creativity, a force behind his gift for video art. If a young man from a distant colony in East Asia jumps into leading circles of Western art alone, then he is destined to be a member of the avant-garde. In 1960s Europe, where the main trend in art was to challenge the existing order and authority, Mr. Paik earned a reputation for destroying that order with methods unconceived of by western artists.

His mother country, after 40 years, finally offered him a museum for his works. He was elated, and asked the curators to leave about 330 square meters of space at the center of the museum empty for him. Probably the venerable artist is planning another masterpiece. I cannot help smiling.

The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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