Mars, executed in 1990, is a quintessential media sculpture by Nam June Paik. Its incorporation of TV monitors, novel sculptural properties and neon lighting are emblematic of the way the ‘father of media art’ pioneered the use of new technologies as an art form. Mars is also a significant example of Paik’s interest in celestial subject matter, echoing the interest of the Fluxus group - of which he was a leading member - in charting unexplored territories. Similarly, the sculpture signals a return in Paik’s practice to the relationship between astral bodies and the light-screen of the monitor that had been definitive of his practice in the 1960s.
For Paik, a trained musician, the harmonious formal organization of his sculptures was essential. As Jacqueline D. Serwer observed, he ‘began to use his TVs not just as a vehicle to transmit sound and images, but as actual compositional elements’ (J. Sawyer, ‘Nam June Paik: ‘Technology’, American Art, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1994, p. 88). The TV monitor was a way of activating the work, enriching its presence and enabling his sculptures to engage with everyday experiences. The potential of the monitors to be both tools for transmission and formal compositional elements is eloquently demonstrated by Mars, in which the televisions not only connect the pulsing red disc to the comet-like extrusion beside it, but also play upon the cultural history of televised space missions and the potential of new technologies to explore the solar system. Mars was executed during a phase in Paik’s practice when Space re-emerged as a leitmotif in his work. With a characteristically anarchistic sense of humour, Paik plays upon the Fluxus imperative to locate and create art in every realm of life. The injunction to go where art had never been before is taken literally in Mars, with the tongue-in-cheek allusion that the sculpture is transmitting from the red planet itself.
Paik had made the same connection in the 1960s, during the golden age of space travel. His 1965 installation, The Moon Is The Oldest TV, conflated the circular light-screen of television sets with the light-globe of the moon. The notion of travel, intergalactic or otherwise, was an important aspect of the peripatetic artist’s work, featuring in works such as Electric Moon no. 2, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Born in Seoul, and having studied in Tokyo and Germany before moving to New York in 1964, Paik is widely considered to be the first artist to use new image technologies to broaden the horizons of avant-garde art. Influenced by friends and collaborators like Carl-Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage, Paik, with a preternatural sense of the potential of media technology, saw no reason why its nascent developments should not be put at the service of trailblazing the art of the future.