[Viewpoint] The testament of Paik Nam-june

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[Viewpoint] The testament of Paik Nam-june

Even those who are unaware of the works and reputation of artist Paik Nam-june may remember his infamous pants-dropping incident before the international press and leaders at a White House state dinner.

The Korean-born American video artist was invited to a state dinner hosted by the Clintons for visiting Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the first lady on June 9, 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Paik, who two years before suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, was wheeled along the receiving line. When he approached the two presidents, he decided to show respect by getting up from his wheelchair with a walker.

Then, in the middle of small talk with President Clinton, Paik’s pants fell down, baring his lower body sans underpants. Tens of cameras and TV cameras caught the moment, to the chagrin of the state leaders.

Paik’s stunt stirred global amusement, prompting artists and pundits to wonder whether it was an intentional artistic or political statement mocking Clinton’s adultery in the White House, or a mere accident befalling a disabled person.

Many wanted to believe the playful cultural terrorist had ridiculed the hypocrisy and bluff of a seemingly civilized political society. Paik himself shrugged off the incident, saying “My pants dropped. That’s all.”

Paik Nam-june (1932-2006) helped to shape the contemporary art world, pioneering video art and coining the phrase “Information Superhighway.”

He grew up in Seoul under Japanese colonial rule and went to Japan at 18 with his family when the Korean War broke out in 1950. After graduating from the University of Tokyo, he moved to Germany to study the history of music at Munich University, where he was reborn as an avant-garde artist, performer and composer.

He dominated the European and American contemporary art scenes with inspirational and revolutionary experiments with television sets and other technologies in sculptures and installations.

In declining health, Paik often talked of his hometown. He christened the Nam June Paik Art Center in Yongin, Gyeonggi, but failed to see it with his own eyes, bidding farewell to this world in Miami at 73 while humming the Korean folk song “Arirang.”

His countrymen knew very little about this futuristic artist. He was an avid and prolific reader, satirical critic of contemporary affairs, obsessed with technology, and left volumes of writings apart from a lifetime of artworks.Koreans can finally enjoy his writings with a collection published in two volumes recently. The publishing company hosted a “welcome home” ceremony last week.

In a documentary film shown during the party, Paik was again seen letting down his pants, and it very much seemed intentional. He had been proud to flash the Mongolian spot - a congenital birthmark of East Asia - on his behind.

His display of resistance toward white hegemony prevalent in Western societies resembled the tribal warriors on horseback roaming the steppes of Central Asia. He transformed shamanistic rituals into performance and media art.

“In Korea, it seems nationalistic patriots can talk their way through anything,” he said. “The cultural perspective of a country where a global man has no place will inevitably be narrow. The dictatorship days are gone. You’re now free to do whatever you wish to do. The Korean people have their racial roots in nomad tribes. They have to scatter far and spread their wings.”

We have been completely wrong about Paik for pigeonholing him as a progressive artist. He was not only a truly “global, but epoch-making artist,” as defined by Lee Yeong-cheol, the director of Nam June Paik Art Center. We, as his countrymen who bore similar birthmarks on our behinds, must rediscover the man who claimed “I am the Yellow Peril!”

Instead of placing the blame on the Western art community for underestimating his art, we should take on the onus of building a home for research and preservation of his legacy. The video guru foretold that only art containable in the human brain will survive in the 21st century.

He was preaching the common-sense notion that a frame is fake and should be destroyed, because the essence - what’s inside - is the important thing. Just like the title of one of his works, he had lived a “global groove” during his time.

When he was advanced in age, ailing, and had lost sight in one eye due to diabetes, he met a friend and noticed he looked worried. Paik gave him a wink and said: “I can see better with this eye.” We may have to borrow some of Paik’s one-eyed wisdom and humor as we take in the grief and angst from the recent naval tragedy.

*The writer is a senior reporter for culture and sports of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Chung Jae-sook
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