There’s many a superlative casually thrown around when it comes to career retrospectives, especially those of the recently deceased. You know the ones we mean: maverick, trailblazer, visionary, and not forgetting of course, genius.
It’s as if we instinctively become more deferential the less alive someone is. Over time, the devaluation of the terms’ weight and meaning is the inevitable fall out, even when they’re applied to someone genuinely deserving.
With this in mind we approached the joint Tate Liverpool and FACT exhibition celebrating the work of Nam June Paik, who died in 2006, with some trepidation. The artist, they say, was a maverick, trailblazing and, yes, pioneering visionary genius.
Something of a chameleon, uncannily evolving and responding to the cultural changes going on around him, Paik began his career as a classical pianist, training in 1950s Tokyo (having fled Seoul with his family at the outbreak of the Korean War). From Tokyo, he continued on to Germany, arriving in Dusseldorf and becoming a disciple of Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus movement (which counted a young Yoko Ono among its number). Then in the early 60s, he pitched up in New York at a time when television was flexing its muscles, and staking its claim as a significant cultural organ.
It was around this time Paik made the statement ‘the medium is the medium’, recognising TV’s inherent potential as a positive tool for the artist, rather than something to be feared.
Aptly perhaps, at Tate, it is a work illustrating Paik’s TV fascination which opens the exhibition. Internet Dream, a bank of screens made up of 52 television sets displays a composition of images featuring quick ‘jump cut’ edits, appearing for all the world as if someone is ‘flicking through’ multiple channels. It’s an initially overwhelming (but spectacular) piece, which quite rightly is given pride of place in Tate’s Wolfson Gallery.
A little further on is a piece of stark contrast; One Candle utilises lo-fi technology projecting onto a wall the image of a burning candle, serving to create a meditative quality while also pointing out the precarious nature of the candle.
Up on Tate’s fourth floor are examples of an artist who, while eager to break new boundaries, remains rooted in nature, and one displaying a clear reverence for convention; TV Garden features 60 TVs and over 200 plants while Robot Family’s Aunt and Uncle (vintage TVs represented as ‘people’) stare out at us benevolently, as if to extol traditional nuclear family values. Paik is an artist who time and again juxtaposes technology and nature, highlighting humanity’s reliance on the two.
Over at FACT, the big draw is 2001’s Laser Cone, a mesmerising interactive assault on the eyes. Alongside this piece in FACT’s Gallery 2 are a selection of video works including Good Morning Mr. Orwell, Bye Bye Kipling and Wrap Around the World. FACT’s contribution to the venture should not be dismissed; it serves as a powerful companion piece, focusing on Paik’s later output.
Viewed together, the exhibitions at Tate and FACT can be seen as depicting a sizeable history of the modern art movement, and the curating team have done a fine job of reflecting this while also helping us with the question of whether or not Nam June Paik is deserving of all of those aforementioned platitudes. SevenStreets was left in no doubt.
Nam June Paik, until 13th March
Tate, Albert Dock
FACT, Wood Street
Pic: Aunt 1986
© Nam June Paik Estate