Yesterday during the July 4th holiday, I watched several videos about Nam June Paik, seminars staged in the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, DC. It was a joy to watch especially the concert that Paik used to stage in his youth, in this case, a Japanese musician dragged a violin in the concert hall while amplifying the harsh sound interspersed with video clips from a camera located inside the violin as it was tugged across the room. The concert was called ‘Strange Sounds’ and it brought to mind so-called avant-garde art, a concept I had difficulty understanding until I watched the seminars. In the past I looked confused at samples of avant-garde art in the Singapore Art Museum, samples of video and electronic art, maybe even samples of Paik’s work such as the Buddha contemplating himself with the video loop and maybe various samples shown in screens or projected to a wall. I did not know until I watched the seminars that Paik pioneered electronic art in the 1960s though I appreciate the latest incarnations from younger artist today, who owe their work to Paik, who started it all, while expressing his admiration to the French artist Marcel Duchamp.
Paik’s work, especially examples like ‘Megatron Matrix’ are technically challenging, which require a technical knowledge most people don’t have, using electronic equipment that makes a statement about modern life and the rise of technology, making art that changes perception especially for people like me, involved in information technology. The modern artist no longer use the materials of the past; paint, canvass, dance, poetry, sculpture in their usual expression but integrates them in modern equipment like television, computers and the internet. It is the complex mix of all these media that make it bewildering until I started to understand Paik’s work. I sat entranced as I watched Paik’s ‘Megatron Matrix’ in the Smithsonian; similar to other people who looked mesmerized at Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings in the Louvre or Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel or his sculptures in Florence, like experiencing a revelation or a change in perception akin to reaching an insight.
It made sense that Paik was a Korean, who studied in Japanese universities and lived in Asia, Europe and US to achieve a leading-edge view; the title of the Smithsonian exhibit is ’Global Visionary’ – a title I agree with. I think it would take a Korean or Japanese or even Chinese artist to lead the way to a new kind of art, especially with electronics where Korean and Japanese manufacturers are cutting-edge. Paik came from a wealthy family, whose father was an industrialist in the textile business, which gave him the means to delve into electronics and other expensive technology such as the Sony video camera that started his journey. He is now known as the father of electronic art; who coined the term information or electronic super highway. Asian artists like Murakami or even Kurosawa have a unique insight to modern times and Paik is the next Asian visionary who is helping people make sense of contemporary life. But one has to pay close attention to one’s feelings when looking at Paik’s work because it may seem mundane now that technology pervades every aspect of our lives.
I watched Paik’s videos and lectures in YouTube, the perfect outlet for Paik’s work, discovering a way to watch videos in my smart TV, seamlessly synchronizing with my Android tablet. It is a fitting tribute to Paik; to have this facility to be technically proficient; that one can create electronic art out of today’s equipment, a conceit one naively follows by buying the latest gadget in a quest to make life easier, productive, and smart (following Alvin Toffler‘s ‘Future Shock’). It’s a consumption led urge, a materialistic lust driven by marketing delusions peddled by companies like Apple or Sony, something that Paik alludes to, whereas his work provides a detachment; in order to understand this urge. He is the first visual artist who could relate to the modern milieu, similar to the works of William Gibson, whose books are categorized as science fiction and Haruki Murakami.
Perhaps today’s children will not notice or care because of technologies pervasiveness, that these modern manifestation are reflected in Paik’s art. In a way it’s helping one understand technology, not in the ‘walled garden’ of Apple but in the mix and match ‘free’ technology of Google, Android phones and tablets, a low cost but perhaps more difficult path when compared to Apple or Sony. Obviously it is the cheaper alternative, which brings one to Thomas Stanley’s work on millionaires – people who do not really spend a lot but look for cheap deals – preferring instead to buy most things in Wal-Mart. Hence, avoiding the media or marketing delusions that Paik alludes to; advertising that peddle the illusion that one must buy the latest and most expensive product. Stanley tell us to stop acting rich and live like a ‘millionaire’ perhaps like the old American mystics Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman who extoll the simplicity of life in the woods, subsisting off the land. I don’t think Paik was ever wealthy but he found bliss by indulging in his artistic passion that gives insight and liberation to others.
Avant-garde art is meant to break one’s normal patterns of thought, and Paik’s admiration for Duchamp makes sense because his art also breaks ‘normality’ by doing stupid or crazy things. Using technical equipment is an offshoot of the urge to change one’s normal thinking, to break out of the mental box. For instance, a normal concert would have musicians playing their instruments, creating music from a composer’s masterpiece. An avant-garde musician dragging a violin in a concert hall, emitting scratching sounds and amplifying the jangle maybe seen as a concert too because the parameters are the same. This was Paik’s starting point, being a radical performance artist, staging concerts with nude violinists before embarking into electronic art. By using new technology like electronics to express himself, working with the new medium to make art, adapting works like ‘TV Garden’ makes people uncomfortable because it requires an effort to understand. Once understanding is reached, insight is gained that changes one’s perception. Therefore new thinking is developed to make sense of complexity.