This year would have marked the 90th birthday of the avant-garde video and multimedia artist Nam June Paik, and the celebration and his impact are still going strong.
On the heels of several exhibitions of his work, including a two-part one at the Gagosian gallery in New York, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea is showcasing “Paik Nam June Effect” through Feb. 26. The large-scale exhibition’s title refers to the traditional order of his Korean name versus the Western one.
Staged at the MMCA Gwacheon, the show spotlights the achievements of the late artist and how his work has illuminated the development of contemporary Korean artists in the ’90s. The Seoul-born creative returned to his homeland in 1984, following 35 years of living abroad. He died in 2006.
While some shun the speed of technological advancements, the complex artist not only recognized what lay ahead digitally, but he dove into it, while also forewarning about its reach. Breaking things down for the masses, the artist once said, “The future is now.” Another declaration that was true, given his preferred artistic mediums, was, “Without electricity, there can be no art.”
Two of his other declarations that still ring true today are, “Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence” and, “The culture that’s going to survive in the future is the culture that you can carry around in your head.”
Paik’s deep thinking was partially a product of his personal history. Once the Korean War was underway in 1950, Paik and his family fled Korea to Hong Kong and later relocated to Japan. After studying aesthetics and graduating from the University of Tokyo, he moved to Germany to study music history in the late ’50s. In 1961 — 13 years before Paik would be credited with coining the term “the electronic super highway” — he had returned to Japan to explore and better understand its forward-thinking technologies, including the first commercial video recorder. Three years later the artist immigrated to the U.S., initially putting down roots in New York City. By the late ’70s, he was off to Germany to teach at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf for an extended run. Through his studies, extensive travels and alliances with other forces in the arts such as composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, he addressed cultural, political, identity, futurism and other key issues.
The anchor of the MMCA Gwacheon show is his largest video art installation, “The More, the Better.” Of the 103 works on view, 43 are major ones done by the artist in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including “My Faust: Nationalism” (1989-1991) and “Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan” (1993), which was award-winning work at the 1993 Venice Biennale that illustrated his dreams of Korea’s globalization. The first section of the show examines national identity, international events and the dream of globalization. Also on view are paintings, installation and photography from 25 important Korean artists.
His avant-garde work still rings true today, given the abundance of screen time that billions spend daily with their smartphones. Signs of that can be seen in the second section of the exhibition, which plays up modernization, advancements in science and technology and optimism about the future, as indicated by how Korean artists blended art and technology in the late ’90s — well before the Information Age had fully taken hold. The aforementioned “My Faust,” for example, highlights a barrage of images and information stemming from a steeple.
The show’s third section delves into mixed media and installations, hybridity and “third spaces” — another of-the-moment topic given how technology has created vast social transformation. Among the art spotlighted is Soug Youngki’s “The Dress of Andy Warhol” (1992), which used a copier to distort an existing image as a means to expand the scope of expression in the visual arts.
Visitors will find in the final section works that explore the individual, minority identities and diversity including Paik’s “TV Egg” (1994) and “Multiple I” (1992) by Yeesookyung.
The MMCA’s director Yuon Bummo considers “the finale of our ‘Paik Nam June festival’ for the 90th anniversary of his birth as an opportunity to reexamine and honor his artistic achievements as someone who had a major influence on the identity of Korean visual culture in the 1990s.”