Feature

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary

In 1965, Nam June Paik shot “what is widely considered to be the first piece of video art.”

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Through Aug. 11

In 1965, Nam June Paik shot “what is widely considered to be the first piece of video art,” said Rachel Wolff in The Wall Street Journal. After allegedly purchasing the first Sony Portapak sold in the U.S., he used the pioneering handheld camera to tape a portion of Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York, screening the results for friends that night. But the Korean-born Paik (1932–2006) was just beginning his experiments with visual technology. Using TV sets as building blocks, he constructed pyramids, robots, even a functional bra and cello. With other TVs, he let viewers use magnets to create “vivid, screen-saver-like swirls” on the screens. His apparent belief that TV technology could be “a unifying force for good” still feels timely. At the Smithsonian’s new retrospective, much of Paik’s work “could pass as a reflection of contemporary, electronics-crazy life.”

Unfortunately, the Smithsonian decided to lead its current retrospective with Paik’s “large, late, and rather vapid work,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. 1995’s Electronic Superhighway is big—a wall-size installation of TV screens that fill out a neon-lit map of the United States. But it’s little more than “a frenetic exercise in surface.” Better are his earlier works, when Paik explored TV’s role as a mirror of consciousness. TV Rodin, from 1982, places a miniature version of The Thinker atop a palm-size TV monitor, forcing Rodin’s famous figure to eternally contemplate the screen. TV Buddha, from the same year, “takes the drama a step further,” adding a camera so that the bronze deity is watching an image of itself filmed in real time. It’s as if the figure’s mind would go blank if you pulled a plug.

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