Sex, fraud and video art, R.I.P

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Sex, fraud and video art, R.I.P

Maybe it’s just his name. Maybe it’s the monumental scale of his work, which turned the simple shape of television sets into a giant spectacle of modern civilization. Or perhaps it could have also been the ambiguous attitude of the artist, who never made himself clear in public as to whether he was praising or criticizing technology and the urban ideals in his works.
But in many ways, the works of the late artist Paik Nam-june, who once called art “fraud,” often seemed to have reflect the corporate fantasy and vision for art, nature and technology.
Whatever it was, the artist, who died last Sunday, had while he was alive nourished unparalleled attention from the eyes of corporate collectors in Korea. An example of his fame is a wide display of his video works in lobbies of major company headquarters throughout the country.
“If you look at his work from the point of view of people who grew up in the ’60s in Korea, it’s a revelation,” says Lim Dae-geun, a curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. “This was a period when the experience of watching television was more valuable than going to a movie theater. And here was an artist who played with 12 television sets and made himself a pioneer in an avant-garde art. His use of technology in art is something that many companies aspire to achieve in their corporate spirit.”
Across Seoul, dozens of buildings have Paik’s video works on display as both fashionable art icons and humanizations of technology. With the artist’s death, the value of the works will only begin to rise.
Some of Paik’s works, for example, are on display at the Insa Art Center in Insadong, central Seoul, through Feb. 12
Perhaps one of the most precious collections amongst the displays of Paik’s works in Korea is “TV Cello” at the SK-T Tower in Jongno, downtown Seoul. A video installation, the work was the result of a controversial collaboration between Paik and a cellist-performance artist Charlotte Moorman. The work is made up of television sets mounted upon each other to resemble the body of a cello attached to the strings and bridge of a real cello, which Moorman played in a live performance.
In the original performance in 1969, Paik appeared on stage kneeling between Mooreman’s breasts as she pretended to play Paik like a cello, using her bow to stretch from his heel to his head. The current installation, which is also owned by Daegu Bank, simply shows the cello as a prop from the performance.
The headquarters of Hana Bank in Eulgiro, also in downtown Seoul, has two earlier works the company commissioned for their lobby, “Hana Robot” and “Economic Super Highway,” a radio tower which was partly revised and recently shown at the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
In central Seoul, a similar robot series, Jang Young-sil Robot, is also on display at the lobby of JoongAng Ilbo Headquarters, named after a scientist from the Joseon Dynasty.
At the Posco headquarter near Teheran street, two of Paik’s relatively recent works, “TV Tree” and “TV Funnel,” are installed in the building’s atrium. Amore Pacific has “Buddha Says the Conscious is a Spirit,” a smaller work by the artist. Daelim Industrial Company has Paik’s video installation, “Dancing Indian.”
But perhaps one of the most symbolic public monuments that embody the artist’s view on technology is “The More The Better,” a giant media tower installed at the lobby of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The work, which is the artist’s largest, comprises 1,003 television monitors built into a shape of a giant birthday cake as a reference to Korea’s rebirth on Oct. 3, the day the republic was founded.
The installation, which was originally commissioned by the museum to celebrate the Seoul Olympics in 1988, exudes a powerful presence. It’s located at the center of the museum’s atrium and is surrounded by a long spiral staircase, with each monitor showing fragments of multiple images and sounds that symbolize random scenes of nature, clips from television shows and people engaged in different activities.
In most of his works, the individual images on his screens don’t provide any hint of the larger issue. Paik concentrates on formal experiments, using scales, titles and different arrangements of monitors to make new and organic forms.
In “Tiger is Alive,” an installation at the lobby of Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, for example, he built his monitors into a shape of a grand cello, showing edited footages from his old performances re-assembled into a modern version using electronic devices.
In “TV Tree” in the atrium of the Posco building in southern Seoul, he hung his monitors on a steel frame. In “TV Garden” he spread them on a floor among a large number of tropical plants. “TV Cello,” was his take on music. He also used monitors to form a bra, a bed, a cross and body parts.
Paik sought a variety of ways to question the authority of technology as a source of contemporary culture and human nature. Tellingly, he was one of the first artists to poignantly describe the way television shapes cultures and perceptions of other cultures.
In “TV Buddha” he insinuated that the media has turned into a religious and philosophical state; In “TV Rodin,” he suggested how art has been influenced by the course of technology. In “TV Bra” and “TV Penis” he showed the relation between the body, sexuality and technology. In “TV Garden” he drew a distinction between technology and the history of nature. In “Seoul Rhapsody,” a permanent installation at the Seoul Museum of Art, he puts together fragments of everyday life in Seoul to suggest the ways in which technology alters urban landscapes.
Perhaps he clearly sums up his vision of TV in relation to human evolution in the title of his earlier work ― “Moon is the Oldest TV.”
Many of his collections are also on public museums and private galleries in Korea. The number of his works reveals how prolific the artist had been when he was alive.
But after all, the real work of art for Paik was the artist himself. With his death, the only way to feel the artist’s breath is through the footage of his performances.


by Park Soo-mee

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