"Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body's new membrane of existence." - Paik Nam-June
Paik Nam-June was one of the great visionary artists of the 20th century. His early adoption of new media technology as his primary medium paved the way for generations of artists to come, and his predictions over the role of communications technology in our everyday life have proved uncannily prescient. From the 1960s onwards, Paik was a leader in incorporating technological innovations - from robotics to satellite communication - in works that were always rooted in the humor, humanism and open-ended play he discovered in Fluxus and in his own Buddhism. His stacked television robot sculpture, a "portrait" of Marshall McLuhan, featured here (Lot 48), is an exceptional example from this period in Paik's career, embodying his decades of experimentation, showing him playfully reflecting on the evolution of technology in his own lifetime as well as an influential figure throughout his career.
As the saying goes, things develop slowly, and are also able to change rapidly. Paik had already forcasted the ways in which technology would alter the fabric of our everyday lives. He coined the phrase "electronic superhighway" in 1974. He saw interactive telecommunications as the foundation for a new world of creative exchange and intimacy, advocating for a "creative digital commons" (arguably, part of this utopian vision is what underpins social media and networking platforms such as Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, WeChat, albeit in a commercial form). When asked in 1995 where the field of video art was going, Paik replied simply, "the internet". (Netscape Navigator, the first commercial internet browser, had only become available in 1994.)
Paik's interest in the field made him one of the most celebrated artists of his lifetime. He participated in the Whitney Biennial five times, twice in Documenta, and twice in the Venice Biennale, where he also won the Golden Lion prize in 1993. He held significant large-scale retrospectives in his lifetime at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Kunsthalle Basel, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, as well as more recent surveys of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Asia Society in New York.
Paik was born in Seoul and studied music and composition in Tokyo, before landing in Germany in 1956. The collaborative nature of musical performance undoubtedly played a fundamental role in what was to follow, and it was not long before he was a much sought-after participant in the Fluxus events and Happenings then which took place in Dusseldorf and Cologne. This brought him in contact with celebrated avant-gardists such as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, John Cage, and George Maciunas, many of whom became lifelong collaborators.
"The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized" - MM p. 25
Of this early period, Paik recalled, "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 electronics." Concurrent with Paik's investigations, and a huge influence on his thinking, was his reading of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, a Canadian communications professor and unlikely pop culture figure, is best known for his aphorisms on popular new media and culture, the most famous of which was "the medium is the message". McLuhan wanted to draw attention to the ways in which new technologies altered the fundamental structures of sociality and culture. His theories proved catnip for marketing executives but did not bode well for the future of culture. But McLuhan's theories brought Paik closer to seeing the pervasiveness of communications technology as a unique opportunity for creative expression and exchange, what he would refer to in his 1970s works as a "Global Groove".
Paik made his first robot in 1964, and in 1986, with his Family of Man: Mother, Father and Baby, Paik introduced a series of robot-sculptures that would later become his most recognized series: The stacked "robot portrait" is composed of vintage televisions and other artifacts of old media. As images of robots "rising up" were becoming more and more common in film, Paik began to take a different tack. His robots are immobile, their ad hoc vintage components are evocative of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, and they draw upon our nostalgia for old technology, their awkward anthropomorphic shapes which recall the novelty of "Robbie the Robot".
Marshall McLuhan is composed of eleven stacked sets, the majority of which are identical, giving the form a kind of solid masculinity, much like the man himself. Two narrow sets serve discreetly as his feet, a larger box, arched inquisitively at an angle, functions as the head, and two long receiver antennas serve as delicate, impractical hands. Contra the images of robots as threat, this robot demands our care and attention. They remind us of the earliest days of broadcast television, of formative childhood memories of family gatherings, coming together for major and minor broadcast "events". It recalls the era when televisions were new and so central to domestic life that they were "part of the family". Despite his monumental scale, we look on the figure with an almost paternalistic nostalgia.
The uniformity of the televisions evokes a commercial display in a department store that has been anarchically assembled into this playful form. Instead of playing the static-laden, black-and-white programming that we might expect, Paik adds to this a series of multi-channel video montages, ecstatic kaleidoscopes 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 medium's innovative and creative potential. McLuhan himself was a ubiquitous television presence, and as early as 1967 Paik was manipulating his image and his "message", suggesting that the viewer's relationship to the broadcasted message does not necessarily by any means need to be a passive one.
Here Paik demonstrates that it is precisely the television's openness, its centrality in our lives, and its constant, uninterrupted trickle of broadcast information that allow even greater potential in developing art and culture. For him, television is an instrument of humanistic advancement that could bring greater diversity and richness to our culture. With Marshall McLuhan, Paik reflects on the place not just of television in our lives but also our relationship to culture, creativity, and exchange, and he demands the viewer do so too. Paik's robot is not a threat, but instead it stands politely at attention, as if it was waiting for our demands. The immobility of the robot suggests that he needs our input to be activated, and the incongruity of the vintage sets with the high-tech video draws the viewer into considering not just the artist behind them but the possibilities of the medium. One can only imagine what Paik might think of today's internet activism, new media artists, or the proliferation of communication media that challenge the boundaries of art. One suspects that he would be delighted by all of it and would be eager for more.