Widow recalls life with Paik Nam-june in memoir

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Widow recalls life with Paik Nam-june in memoir

He abhorred commitment, demanded freedom and spent money “like water” when struggling to make ends meet in a New York studio apartment, but all these disagreeable habits became a source of creative energy for the pioneering artist Paik Nam-june, his widow recalled Tuesday.

Visiting Seoul to promote her new memoir, “My Love, Paik Nam-june,” Shigeko Kubota recounted the 40 tumultuous years they spent together - first as Asian avant-garde colleagues stranded on foreign soil and then as a couple sharing an artistic vision.

“He was so poor, he didn’t want to get married,” Kubota, 74, said in a press meeting held on the birthday of the late artist. “We fell in love and later lived together, but we always fought because of problems with money.”

Paik, born in Seoul in 1932 during the Japanese occupation, is considered the first artist to use video for artistic expression.

The Korean War compelled his wealthy family to move to Hong Kong and then to Japan, where he studied art history. The artist later moved to Germany and met composer John Cage, who inspired him to try electronic art and join the Fluxus art movement, which made use of everyday sounds and objects.

In 1963, Paik made his solo exhibition debut, titled “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” in which he randomly positioned television sets on the stage and used magnets to alter their images.

The following year, Paik moved to New York and lived there until his death in 2006 at age 74.

In her memoir, Kubota sheds light on the idiosyncratic habits of the genius and the couple’s dramatic relationship.

Paik, the youngest son of a millionaire who owned one of the two Cadillacs that existed in Korea at that time, grew up listening to his sisters playing the piano, but his parents sternly forbade him from touching the instrument, Kubota says.

“His father said, ‘Oh, a boy playing piano? A boy should become a businessman, not a musician. How will you make money?’” she said.

Paik indeed struggled to make ends meet as a young artist. After his parents died and the family’s wealth was squandered on his older brothers’ failed business ventures, he was a penniless artist with no patrons, Kubota recalled.

“His mother used to tell him, ‘you spend money like water,’ but in New York, we didn’t have enough money for him to spend like water,” she said.

Kubota, also a video artist, was instantly smitten with the Korean man when she first saw his performance in her native Japan in 1963, where Paik was living and searching for color televisions and robots for a work of art. Paik had a “slender face and eyes long and shaded as if immersed in melancholy,” she recounted.

“I have a good eye for art. I am an artist myself,” she said.

“What he was doing was an invention. He was filled with all kinds of information spanning from high art to low art. ... I was good at chasing him, chasing him, chasing him,” she said with a smile.

Kubota says she hopes her memoir will serve as an inspiration for young artists with an uncertain future.

“It’s easy to buy food in the supermarket, but it’s hard to sell your art,” she said. “So this book is hopefully for young artists - never give up. Working for art and working for your dream, someday it will happen like Nam-june Paik. He didn’t start as a big artist.”

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