An artist’s memorial: a chorus of chaos
The crowd gathered at Bongeun Temple, southern Seoul, on Saturday to honor the late artist Paik Nam-june. People standing in front of a long horizontal pole shivered in the wind as the temple bell tolled three times. That was the signal: They took their violins and with mighty heaves shattered them on the metal pole. The noise of cracking wood and bursting strings ripped through the loudspeakers and tore apart the prevailing silence at the temple.
There was also a stage lined with friends and special guests, including the senior curator of the Guggenheim Museum, John Hanhardt, who with great pomp and dignity also destroyed their violins, mimicking Paik’s “One for Violin Solo” performance piece.
To paraphrase the art critic David Joselit on Paik’s work, the memorial pulsed, flashed, splashed, hummed and rocked.
“My uncle was a creative, fun artist,” said Ken Hakuda, Paik’s nephew who has managed the artist’s studio since Paik’s death. “He would not want a boring event for his memorial. So we came up with a program that is very much in the spirit of Nam-june.”
The memorial on Saturday, which was put together by the artist’s family with the arrival of his ashes, made consistent references to the works by Paik, who died in January after decades of using television monitors as an artistic metaphor for the 20th century. Paik was hailed as the “father of video art.”
In the center of the temple’s rear courtyard, his family had erected a miniature version of Paik’s “The More the Better,” the artist’s largest video installation piece.
On one end of the altar, there was an unusual mix of traditional delicacies that are typically served in Shamanist rituals, juxtaposed with piles of Coca Cola and Seven-Up on the other end. On stage, next to Paik’s burial urn and a black and white photograph of the artist, there was a piano, an instrument the artist had tinkered with long before he began to work with television sets.
About halfway through the show, the temple hosted a Shamanist performance, in which Hakuda was led around the temple by a female shaman, who also danced on knife blades. The ritual was a reference to Paik’s video works, in which the artist also tried to evoke the spirit of a deceased character in “Good Morning Mr. Orwell” using satellite broadcasts.
Toward the end of the evening, the Paik family hosted a piano performance, in which they handed out candles to everyone in the audience and encouraged them to play Paik’s piano, as a message to the late artist.
The crowd lingered on the stage for over an hour. Some quietly stood in front of Paik’s ashes, saying prayers. At times, piano notes rang incongruently. Others dropped melted wax on a keyboard, or played a single key and left the stage. Near the end, the wax on the center of the keyboard had congealed into a huge lump.
The emotional mood betrayed the mix of pride and sympathy for Korea’s most famous artist, a man who left long ago and made his name abroad. Paik never seemed willing to fulfill the role of national artist, and dodged questions by local journalists that were deliberately meant to test the artist’s patriotism.
At one point, he told to press that he would not publicly spell out his love for his country, because he said patriotism was not something that could be spoken.
He went to Hong Kong in 1950 when the war broke out and moved to New York in 1964, where he stayed until his death.
“He was a global artist, a true national treasure,” Mr. Hanhardt said.
At times, the crowd seemed overwhelmed by the spectacle of the scene, as visitors swarmed into the temple to collect the violin carcasses scattered on the ground.
The evening closed with bell tolls. As the artist’s burial urn was carried away by his family, I read the banner on the altar: “Welcome Home, Paik Nam-june.”
by Park Soo-mee
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