Paik Nam June is an exceptional artist who has pushed forward the development of international contemporary art. Paik's bold expression and free experimentation led him in a more avant-garde direction than his contemporaries, and his work is notable for its tremendous breadth and depth. Paik chose his path in response to changes in modern technology and the shifting currents of history, and resulting in enormous innovative and prescient work with relevance for our time. In the 1960s, when the television medium itself was still in its infancy, Paik was already pondering the historical significance of televised and electronic images; in transforming them into an art form for a new era, he revealed a sharp sensitivity to technological development and its implications for industrial society. Many European and American artists were working to expand and deepen the potentials of traditional art forms, such as oil painting and sculpture, but other trends were germinating in the form of Minimalism, among the members of Fluxus, and outstanding figures such as Andy Warhol, Chris Marker, and Richard Serra, all of which were actively developing art in new media. Paik Nam June chose the emerging medium of television and, with a solo historic exhibition in 1963 established video art for the first time it as an artistic medium. Since the 1960s, in a career spanning more than 40 years, the imaginative, philosophical and conceptual possibilities inherent to television monitors and electronic images formed the core creative vocabulary of Paik's work.
I start a new life from November 1961. By starting a new life I mean that I stocked my whole library except those on TV technique into storage and locked it up. I read and practiced only on electronics.
- Paik, 1986
Paik Nam June's "television art" relies on two fundamental creative elements: electronic images and television monitors. Whether employing just one monitor at a time or his record-high number of 1003 monitors, Paik installs and composes his monitors into a variety of shapes and forms. Stereotypically square, flat TV monitors exhibit new flexibility and variety in the installations Paik arranges, each of them independent but part of a greater whole that expresses a complete concept, leading us to contemplate the different meanings that television technology holds for our times. Paik's Watchdog II (Lot 1029) shapes a number of monitors into the form of a guard dog in a piece whose double meaning is obvious throughout the world: live, on-the-spot broadcasts do allow the television medium to act as a watchdog, keeping a watchful eye not so much on our homes as on public security and on events around the world. The faces of our politicians, their dissembling statements, the injustices in society, and the occurrence of disaster and suffering abroad are instantaneously transmitted around the world by satellite, as the same images appear simultaneously in millions of homes around the world. The state of the world has become more of an open book to us all than ever before.
Television technology cannot be equated with movie technology. Both rely on electronic imagery, but movies have often been characterized as "canned imagery"-the audience sees prepackaged, processed images of events long in the past, and the rift between the time of their occurrence and their presentation can never be healed or overcome. Satellite transmission gives television real-time, on-site, cross-border capabilities. The influence of live direct feeds and information dissemination penetrates ever more deeply into our societies and cultures, and the era when TV was mostly a vehicle for soap operas is long past. The present reality is a medium whose functions, as a watchdog over society and a conveyer of culture, include news broadcasts and public debate on a wide variety of issues. When the same image can appear on TV screens in households all around the world, then in an abstract manner of thinking, at the instant of broadcast a line appears encircling the world, unifying it, and perhaps making us all more aware of the shape of our world and our interconnectedness with the rest of humanity. Paik's Watchdog II calls this fact to our attention, and after 50 years of television's development, the accuracy of Paik's interpretation and symbolism has been endlessly re-confirmed by world events. In the 1970s, the horrors of the Vietnam War were broadcast into every household, galvanizing humanistic concern and reflection that brought waves of anti-war protests; in 1989, a tide of democracy in Eastern Europe ultimately brought the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which live broadcasts helped mobilize street demonstrations in favor of a more ideal society. Paik's Watchdog II helps reveal the hidden meanings and social functions of the television medium. These functions are the culmination of the medium's development over the past 60 years, and Paik's work brings home more clearly the positive elements of television's influence on modern society, and his observation of and reflection on these elements gives his work its breadth of meaning and value.
Watchdog II in particular emphasizes the openness and the real-time potential of television. A video camera is housed in the dog's tail, documenting events in the space around it and feeding a simultaneous display on the monitor in the dog's snout. Viewers are made into participants, altering the size of images on the monitors by their relative distance from the display, and thereby incorporated as part of the work's presentation. In this Paik shows his unique originality and artistry, making viewers co-creators of the work as well as images within it, and demonstrating the hidden fluidity of video technology, its appealing and sometimes bizarre novelty.
"The real issue implied in 'Art and Technology' is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium, which is progressing rapidlyK.we will demonstrate the human use of technology, and also stimulate viewers NOT for something mean but stimulate their phantasy to look for the new, imaginative and humanistic ways of using our technology."
- Paik Nam June, 1969
Watchdog II displays Paik's incisive thinking on television technology, his optimism, openness, and sense of humor. These valuable aspects of Paik's art distinguish him from other media artists. Media experts have been given to criticizing TV as crass, superficial, and trivial, a pure product of capitalism that can never occupy a place in the great hall of true art. Paik, however, makes an observation of an entirely different kind, believing that it is precisely television's openness, its centrality in our lives, and its constant, uninterrupted trickle of broadcast information that gives it even greater potential in developing art and culture. The message emphasized over and over in Paik's work is that as long as television is used in a humanistic way for our own advancement, it can create an ideal blend of technology and art that will bring greater diversity and richness to our culture. In the 1960s, Paik Nam June transformed television into clothing, and in the 1980s, made a television robot (Fig. 1). After 1993, television became his vehicle for presenting images of historical figures and their accomplishments (Fig. 2) in a series of complimentary works based on the creative concept of converting the television into a human image, emphasizing its innovative and open character and its ability to enrich the lives of humans. The creative intent behind Watchdog II, its source and aesthetic grounding, embody the same vein of thought as these other works, which in Watchdog II achieves a mature and incisive realization.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s Paik's TV installations were showing changes in two areas. His experience with installation, combined with improved technology, allowed him to create large-scale works with a more imposing physical presence, and he began using his installations to terrain areas beyond art and technology, delving into political, economic, and religious issues. Rocketship to Virtual Venus (Lot 1028) is a significant representative of these stylistic changes. In it Paik introduces religious elements into the mix, and for the first time presents his personal thoughts on the future, the universe, and space exploration.
By the 1990s, Paik was using televisions to construct a series of images of the planets Pluto, Jupiter, Mercury, and the Sun (Fig. 1), and to cap the series off, assembled a television installation in the form of a spaceship. The works in this series share a common concept, a philosophical reflection that joins the visions of space treasured by mankind since time immemorial with the television technology of the current age. Humans have been divided throughout their history by the barriers of politics, belief, culture, and language, and have been distanced from each other, generation after generation, by war, physical distance, and ideological concerns. It seems that only one thing can make humans realize their smallness, put aside their regional concerns and their national boundaries, and achieve a sense that all the Earth's people are united and are one: when they imagine space and face the depths of the universe in the sky above, and they realize that the eras of history, like the Earth, undergo great cycles of birth and rebirth. So it was that in 1969, when astronauts stepped out of their ship and for the first time set foot on the moon, all of humanity, without regard for age, race, or nationality, held its breath in anticipation of the special moment. As that moment showed, our imagination about space unites us into a true global village that overcomes the gulf of time or physical distance, and in that moment, age-old dreams of traveling to the moon seemed to coalesce and achieve reality. Modern society holds dear the vision of a unified Earth, but only television technology, like our dreams of space, is capable of realizing this dream. The way toward this vision of unity, of sharing between cultures that move forward together, is perhaps best shown in the unique operating dynamics of television, which allow us to sit safely at home while breaking the barriers of time and distance, bringing us greater understanding of the other cultures around us. In ways we may not even realize we are participating in the process of joining all parts of the Earth together. Once we understand Paik's creative vision, we understand the inspiration behind his 1965 work The Moon is the Oldest TV (Fig. 2), because the habit of looking at the moon and thinking of distant loved ones, or dreaming about walking on its surface, in a sense has brought people together and served the same function that television does in modern society. The concept for Rocketship to Virtual Venus was already implicit in Paik's work of the early '60s, but over a further period of 30 years it continued to ferment and take shape in his mind, bringing to its eventual realization an even greater degree of maturity and completeness.
In Rocketship to Virtual Venus from 1991, Paik metaphorically links man's dreams of space with television's ability to bring humankind together, revealing the spirit of exploration inherent in television, and the openness that characterizes it in its ideal form. Television openly accepts diversity, knowledge, and the future, even the sphere of virtual reality, which means it has a desire for exploration and imagination, in essence like the exploration of space. Thinking back on the political reforms and the cultural unity brought by television over the last 50 years, even if we cannot find milestones like those in space exploration, television has nevertheless brought deep changes to society over the course of its development in an endeavor that is breathtaking in its sheer scope. These ideals were the product of human technology, the television media, and universal participation, paralleling Paik Nam June's optimistic view of humanity's development in relation to the television medium, and expressing his positive vision of life, the future, and man's exploratory ventures. The unification brought about through broadcast technology is in fact something that has been sought throughout human history, and is one more aspect suggested by the cathedral-like elements in Rocketship to Virtual Venus. In this sense, Rocketship forms an interesting counterpart to Cai Guoqiang's UFO and Shrine in the Sky (Lot 1031) (Fig. 3). Paik Nam June starts from the human point of view to imagine a secular scientific altar and man's exploration of unknown territory in space. The future and the exploration of the universe's vast unknowns; Cai Guoqiang's work instead shows us the alien point of view as they gaze down upon the tangle of Earth history and our age-old imaginings about space exploration and religion. These artists may differ in their points of origin, but both give us a vast perspective on humanity from the changes in its mythology, religion, and technology, finally concluding with an ideal vision of humanity's future and its explorations.
Paik's work also displays an original outlook at the level of pure aesthetics and artistic exploration. Paik created a brand new expressive form, making the television screen a flat painting space for the new age by using electronic images in place of manual brush-and-ink painting methods. If ink-wash painting is China's traditional medium, and tempera and oils are the West's, then the media most able to represent modern mechanistic society are the television monitor and electronic image.
"As collage technique replaced oil paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas"
"(the versatile color TV synthesizer) will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas: as precisely as Leonardo; as freely as Picasso; as colorfully as Renior; as profoundly as Mondrian; as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns." - Paik, 1969
Rocketship to Virtual Venus displays a series of space exploration images, ranging between representational archival, historic and abstract images, whose expressive power excites our mood. More importantly, these images are no longer objective reproductions of the external world, since they originate and fluctuate in tune with the demands of the technology and changing effects of light and shadow. They are independent, yet are at the same time microcosmic images of their time. Electronic images by nature are also fluid and virtual, fleetingly transient real-time images; they represent an entirely new kind of beauty and aesthetics completely at odds with the fixed, eternal, classic "images" sought in traditional art. For Paik, it is the constantly changing character of electronic images that makes them even more capable of expressing the essence of nature, and they are intimately related to the development of our current age and our modern industrial culture. Here, Paik redefines the nature and potential of "an image," and changes the set notions most people have toward images. Historically, artists have created different kinds of "images", through "abstraction", "realism", or "representation" as a means of thinking about enduring issues such as the changes of nature, the exploration of society and humanistic concerns, the depiction of historical phases, or the revelation of personal insights; Paik's creativity strikes out on a new path. What he examines through his images is precisely the image itself and its essence, exploring both broadcast technology and the psychological elements behind its electronic images, giving his work a strongly self-reflective character. Through the creation of electronic images, Paik discovers a broad new historical perspective from which to examine the history and the evolution of "the image". This route of exploration was opened in the early 20th century by Walter Benjamin; Paik's art is a response to Benjamin's queries, and he provides his own interpretation, elevating thinking on "the creation of the image" to an unprecedented level of depth and complexity.
With his media art, Paik Nam June wrote an entirely new page in the development of modern art, one that was aesthetically significant and historically pioneering. For that reason it influenced the following generations of subsequent artists, encouraging them to adopt non-traditional expressive media to present and interpret their visions of modern society and to explore even broader artistic spaces. Paik Nam June's work has deepened the artistic substance of Asian art with its uniqueness and rich cultural implications, but in terms of media art, and the development of modern art in general, he also examined issues that were international in nature and of broad humanistic concern, which made Paik Nam June a great 20th century artist, one of the few to achieve truly global influence.