Over the course of his multi-decade career, Nam June Paik established himself as a visionary figure in new media art and its theorization, displaying profound and often prophetic insight into the ways in which technology and connectivity would fundamentally alter our relationship to the world around us.
Paik's initial studies were in Tokyo, where he trained in musical composition. In the 1950s, he moved to Germany to continue his studies in music theory, but his passionate interest in television and mass media technology, combined with his early contact with Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and members of the neo-Dada Fluxus movement, propelled him to pursue more avant-garde, often performance-based practices. Fluxus philosophy offered an ideal framework for Paik to fully realize his creative ambitions. George Maciunas, one of the movements' foremost theorists and contributors, advocated for an art that was fun, entertaining, iconoclastic, and democratic: "Fluxus art fun should just be simple, entertaining and undermining, it should be about insignificant things, it shouldn't require special skills and countless rehearsals, it should have no commercial or institutional value". Even in Paik's later sculpture and installation works, the open-endedness of Fluxus practice, its active engagement with the audience and the necessity of the viewer's participation to fulfill the concept of a given work remained essential aspects of his practice.
By 1964, Paik had relocated to New York, and over the course of his career, his works and performances could be found in such diverse platforms as documenta (1977 and 1987; Fig. 1), the Venice Biennal (1984 and 1993) to WGBH, Boston's innovative community access and public television station. Retrospectives in his lifetime as well as posthumously, were held in institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art (1982), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1989), Kunsthalle Basel (1991), the National Museum of Contemporary Art Seoul (1992) and the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2000), and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. (2012-2013,) demonstrating Paik's continued significance and appeal in the international art world.
Paik's first "robot" was produced in 1964, and he returned to the robot theme in the late 1980s and 1990s with various tv-stacked sculptures, each of which draws upon particular threads in Paik's years of experimentation, highlighting influences, theories, and cultural and personal turning points, many of which play a kind of homage to the collective memory of the sci-fi, Cold War-inspired fear of robot invasions, rendered now as harmless, immobile "members of the family" (Fig. 2). His Marshall McLuhan (Fig. 3) was an homage to the wildly popular media theorist whose notion of the "global village" was essential in the evolution in Paik's own media theories.
Paik's monumental 1993 television stacked "robot", Route 66 (Lot 44) offers a uniquely dynamic form. At the center of the sculpture is a real vintage motorbike, manned by a substantial, muscular figure, part-astronaut, part-road warrior. A large boxy television serves as his massive torso, topped by a vintage, oval-shaped screen that resembles a helmeted head. The legs are splayed out on either side of the bike, which leans casually to the sides as if the rider has just come to rest. The legs in turn are each constructed by four small screens, the blacks of their casing and armature suggesting the protective leather of riding chaps. His arms are also constructed of small screens wrapped by painted canvas, grasping both the handlebars as well as some well-worn paint brushes. His right arm further holds a small red television. Having come to a stop, his head is cocked inquiringly in our direction; he seems to want to show us something.
The title of the work refers to America's long mythologized relationship with travel and the open road, its associations with freedom and adventure. "Route 66" was an early American highway system, known for a time as the "Main Street of America" (Fig. 4). Established in the mid-1920s, it ran from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Historically this enabled a major shift in populations and internal migration to the West, especially during the Great Depression, while simultaneously building a popular consciousness over regional site-seeing, exploration, and adventure. This spirit was immortalized in Nat King Cole's 1946 rendition of "(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66", a song that has subsequently been covered by every new generation of popular musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode. Route 66 is probably also best immortalized in the popular imagination with the iconic 1969 road movie, "Easy Rider", forever linking the motorcycle road trip with an ethos of adventure, freedom, and rugged individualism (Fig. 5). Even as Route 66 became overshadowed by more modern highway systems, such basic associations of liberation, heroism and the open road continue in popular culture, as with the image of the dystopian "road warrior" of the late 1970s and 1980s "Mad Max" movies.
1993 was also the year that Paik began appropriating historical figures such as Marco Polo and Alexander the Great, among others, explicitly linking the notion of restless cultural nomads and conquerors with the artistic spirit of innovation. A portion of this series was exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the same year that Paik also won the Golden Lion prize for his contributions to the German Pavilion. These works are in many ways conceptual self-portraits, full of personal reference points and elucidating important aspects of Paik's creative thinking and evolution as an artist. The number 359, for example, appears over the gas tank of Route 66, a nod to 359 Canal Street, Paik's first home in NY as well as George Maciunas' apartment and a hotbed of Fluxus activity throughout the 1960s.
Route 66 in many ways encapsulates the fundamental vision of the artist that Paik saw for himself. In 1969, Paik stated, "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 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." The motorcycle delivers notions of forward movement, of roads linking disparate regions and creating the possibilities of new flows and exchange. Paik coined the phrase "electronic superhighway" in 1974, and travel and the road serve as metaphors for Paik's humanistic and progressive view of technology's potential for new creative linkages and cultural innovation. His screens never passively broadcast packaged media, but rather freely mixed images of space, dance, and colour that Paik himself manipulated with the Abe-Paik video synthesizer, which he invented with Shuya Abe in the 1960s. Here Paik presents himself as astronaut-explorer, road warrior, and liberator. His tools are not weapons but paintbrushes and television screens, and the posture of the figure suggests an open invitation to the viewer to join him. Unlike other, more static robot sculptures, Route 66 takes us by surprise, drawing us into Paik's love of play and theories of creative flow and exchange, inviting us to reconsider not just the message of mass media communication as passive receivers, but to take up the position of warriors and adventurers as well, participating equally in the reception as well as the creation of culture, and its global flow.