"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 rapidly. We will not 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
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.
Paik quickly seized on the possibilities of video as his primary medium, employing it in his exploration of the generative possibilities of the chance encounter between his concepts and the public. In his historic presentation for the opening of documenta in 1977, Paik was one of three artists to participate in a live, international satellite broadcast, offering a provocative, Dada-ist introduction to his performance-media. Representing Germany in the Venice Biennale in 1993, Paik offered a series of portraits of historic figures, reflecting on the role of the artist throughout history as a cultural nomad, innovator and leader of men.
With the monumental robot sculpture featured here, the artist has assembled 13 vintage wooden television cabinets to create the arms, legs, torso and head of a massive robot, and at least as many small video monitors to fill out the creature's shoulders, hands, and ears. Dozens of small, miniature televisions adhere to the surface of the figure, as if compelled magnetically to join the cluster of sets. The range of televisions used to assemble the creature elicit different kinds of nostalgia and associations from the viewer; the wooden framed television sets reminding us of the earliest days of broadcast television, of formative childhood memories of family gatherings, coming together for major and minor broadcast events. The smaller more contemporary monitors suggest a slightly different era; as technology became more sophisticated, the sets could become smaller and have a variety of uses, private, personal, portable, or for use in closed-circuit security systems. These smaller sets suggest then a fragmenting of the medium into other uses beyond its socializing function in the home, as well as its increasing ubiquity as a medium of communication in daily life. Finally, the diminutive doll-house-sized televisions that are scattered across the surface of the figure, coupled with the comical glasses attached to the robot's "face", suggest a level of play, almost of a child appropriating these objects as building blocks, not recognizing their correct function and place. At nearly three meters tall, the figure cuts an imposing silhouette, but is equally reminiscent of the now quaintly antiquated past visions of the future, a Frankenstein creature cobbled together by our own collective consciousness, evoking the sci-fi clunky-ness of such old Hollywood inventions as the robots from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Forbidden Planet" filling us with feelings of affection and nostalgia. Finally, the screens themselves, offer an ecstatic kaleidoscope of found images, streaming in a continuous loop of color bars, static, and Paik's signature manipulation of appropriated broadcast imagery, capping this masterwork as a mesmerizing and unabashed celebration of the advent of television and its ubiquity in modern culture.
This embrace of television's ubiquity also functions as Paik's entree into the long debate between "high art" and "kitsch". For modernist like Clement Greenberg, "kitsch" was anti-art-sentimental, popular, and emotionally false. As a member of the Fluxus movement, Paik's art-making was motivated by a desire to shatter such boundaries between high-and low-art and between the artist and the audience. As the dominance of modernist and, later, minimalist art waned, an interest in the problem of "kitsch" again became central to art-making in the 1990s, as we can see with Jeff Koon's concurrent monumental Puppy, made entirely of flowering plans. But for Koons, the embrace of kitsch is a kind of deliberately ironic, Warholian gesture. In Paik's work, however, the embrace of kitsch seems without irony. It is the very ubiquity of television in our cultural consciousness that he sees as a source of celebration and utopian potential. Throughout his career, Paik celebrated the democratizing possibilities of television and mass media communication. In an installation piece from 1965, Paik asserted that the "Moon is the Oldest TV". The work was created just two years after the United States put the first man on the moon, an event that was among the first live, real time international television broadcasts. With that work, Paik celebrated the poetic qualities of satellite communication, reminding us that for centuries, families and loved ones separated by distance might gaze upon the moon and know that others might be doing the same, and as such feel some connection despite their estrangement.
This history of contemporary art in the 20th century was one of innovation and change, the introduction of new technologies, subjects, and media into mainstream art practice. From Marcel Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal for his famous 1917 "readymade", extending through to Andy Warhol's use of consumer imagery as the subject of his silkscreened canvases, artists have regularly questioned and redefined the place of art and the artist in society. And it is within these two strains that Nam June Paik's art lies: his prescient appreciation for new technologies of communication, combined with his utopian optimism, his hope that new media might foster new dialogues across old political, cultural and geographic divides. One wonders what Paik might have thought of the era of Facebook, Youtube, and reality television, of political and community-based social networking and the so-called Twitter revolutions. Once again, Paik's work seems all the more prescient for his insight into the double-edged sword of new media technologies and the ways in which they would re-order and extend the traditional ways in which we engage with our world.