Nam June Paik
SFMOMA, San Francisco
May 08 – October 03, 2021
Nam June Paik has continued to electrify the art world ever since his 1963 debut of television experiments in Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, his first solo exhibition. Paik challenged visitors to participate by activating modified TV sets and playing radically transformed instruments-blurring the distinction between performer and audience. Playful and interactive, Paik’s immersive environment expanded the boundaries of art, music and technology, and laid the groundwork for his career as the founder of video art.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the exclusive U.S. exhibition of Nam June Paik, a major retrospective of Paik’s radical and experimental art, on view from May 8 through October 3, 2021. One of the first truly global artists, Paik (1932–2006) foresaw the importance of mass media and new technologies, coining the phrase ‘electronic superhighway’ in 1974 to predict the future of communication in an internet age. The exhibition will celebrate his multidisciplinary and collaborative practice that encompassed art, music, performance and technology, all in dialogue with philosophies and traditions from both Eastern and Western cultures.
Bringing together over 200 works across all media spanning a five-decade career, from early compositions and performances to large-scale video installations and global satellite projects, Nam June Paik offers an in-depth understanding of the artist’s trailblazing practice. Paik’s innovative, irreverent and entertaining works were informed by his musical background and his vision of an interconnected future. Organized by SFMOMA and Tate Modern, London, with additional presentations at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and the National Gallery Singapore, the retrospective will be the first major Paik show in the U.S. in over 20 years and the first ever largescale survey of his work on the West Coast.
“Nam June Paik is famous for being the historic father of video art, but his groundbreaking and contemporary influence is even more based on his crossover between all media,” said Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA. “Paik’s radical visual and musical aesthetic has a natural home here on the West Coast as a place for global connectivity.” Organized thematically, the exhibition will unite many of Paik’s most iconic and provocative works from throughout his career. In TV Buddha (1974), an 18th-century wooden Buddha appears to watch itself on a modern television, typifying the influence of Zen Buddhist philosophies on Paik’s approach to art and technology. Also on view will be TV Garden (1974–77/2002), an immersive installation featuring dozens of TV sets alongside lush foliage in a futuristic landscape where technology is an integral part of the natural world.
Nam June Paik will partially restage the artist’s pivotal 1963 solo exhibition, Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, and his concept of “action music” (as Paik said, “Why is it music? Because it is not ‘not music’”) will be demonstrated via musical interfaces and some of Paik’s earliest manipulated televisions. Unique to SFMOMA’s presentation will be two robots, one each dedicated to composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, two of Paik’s key collaborators along with artist Joseph Beuys and cellist Charlotte Moorman. John Cage Robot II (1995) and Merce / Digital (1988), among many other works, will highlight Paik’s creative partnerships and collaborative artistic practice.
The retrospective will culminate in the dazzling installation Sistine Chapel (1993), a mesmerizing riot of sound and images from dozens of projectors, taken from the German pavilion which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale in 1993. Presented in its largest scale of any venue at SFMOMA, and exceeding that of all other works in the exhibition, Sistine Chapel will envelop the audience in an audio-visual remix of Paik’s past videos and collaborators seen throughout the exhibition.
ABOUT NAM JUNE PAIK: Born in Seoul during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Nam June Paik lived and worked in Japan, Germany and the U.S., reflecting a global connectedness that transcended borders and cultural differences. He studied music theory and trained as a musician before experimenting with performance and technology in the 1960s as a means of expanding his artistic production. He developed a multidisciplinary practice across media and has become synonymous with the electronic image through a prodigious output of manipulated TV sets, live performances, global television broadcasts, single-channel videos and video installations. Paik collaborated with a community of avant-garde artists and musicians, and played a pivotal role in Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers and poets who engaged in experimental art performances.
His groundbreaking work has influenced art, media, music and popular culture for decades, including musicians such as David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, among many others. ONLINE PARTICIPATORY COMPONENT: VIDEO COMMUNE AND ELECTRONIC OPERA #1 In conjunction with Nam June Paik, SFMOMA will present Paik’s work Video Commune online. Originally broadcast on live TV in 1970, Video Commune was an improvised montage of distorted TV imagery accompanied by songs by the Beatles.
At the time, Paik invited random passersby into the studio and let them remix video images as they aired. The presentation in the exhibition galleries is a condensed videotape of the broadcast filmed from a TV screen. Video Commune will also be made accessible as a participatory work on SFMOMA’s Nam June Paik exhibition webpage: visitors to the webpage will be invited to watch the silent video from the comfort of their home and create a soundtrack of their choice from a selection of Beatles songs. A second video, Electronic Opera #1, combines abstract electronic patterns with an invitation to the audience to close and open their eyes.