“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” - Alexander the Great
Paik Nam June’s monumental mixed-media sculpture Alexander the Great (Lot 70) is an enthralling and thoughtful portrait of the great Macedonian king and an iconic piece within the artist’s oeuvre. Inserting himself into the Duchampian tradition of constructing narratives through found objects, Paik assembles a wooden elephant on a wheeled cart with a statuette of Alexander comprised of television shells broadcasting neon symbols. To emphasise his subject’s status as a leader, Paik fashions a red fluorescent tube into the Chinese character for “Emperor” inside the figure’s symbolic head, while a bundle of electrical wires serves as an allegorical spear his figure’s hand. The television, neon tubes, and wires all constitute crucial objects in Paik’s overall artistic production. These materials encapsulate the core of his fascination with new media as the most effective culture agent and the driver of innovation in the modern era, thus holding the key to the future of society.
This memorable work constituted a crucial component of the artist’s contribution to the German Pavilion of the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993. Paik presented a large-scale project entitled the “Electronic Superhighway – From Venice to Ulan Bator,” which spanned two small rooms and the garden area surrounding the building. While the indoor space represented a metaphor for the East and the West, the outdoor component featured reconstructions of seven historic cultural heroes who travelled through and unified the world, including Marco Polo, the Korean King Tangun, King Attila of the Hungs, Crimean Tatar, Catherine the Great and Genghis Khan. In powerful dialogue with the symbolic and futuristic The Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan (Fig. 1), stood the majestic Alexander the Great (Fig. 2).
Germany’s choice of a Korean-born artist to represent its own country at the Biennale may be astonishing at first, however it is precisely Paik’s relation to the East that informed the decision. This edition of the event was critical on a geopolitical level: it was the first Biennale held after the national consolidation of eastern and western Germany in the wake of the Cold War. It sought to expound ideas of unity and harmony in transnational identity and communication. Germany’s choice of both Hans Haake, a German artist living in the United States, alongside Paik as representatives of Germany, thus poignantly and symbolically embodies the reunification of East and West after a longstanding separation.
Furthermore, Paik’s personal background embodies the overall theme of the 1993 Biennale, “Artist as the Modern Nomad”. After fleeing a war-torn Korea, Paik and his family moved to Hong Kong, and then onto Japan, where he developed a fervent interest in art and music at the University of Tokyo. It was not until he moved to Germany in 1958 to attend Munich University that his artistic career truly started to flourish. There he met experimental artists John Cage and George Maciunas, then joined the international art group Fluxus. In recognition of his participation in the Biennale, Paik was awarded the title “Ehren-Gast-Arbeiter” (Honorable Foreign Worker) of the Federal Republic of Germany. Paik’s complex position as a German/ non-German from the East and his embodiment of cultural fluidity and acceptance thus impeccably resonated with the event’s very ontology.
The theme of cross-cultural influence constitutes a fundamental aspect of Paik’s Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king was one of the first historical figures to embrace and promote an early form of globalisation through his simultaneous efforts to spread Greek civilisation into the East and adapt to other cultures. Paik alludes to Alexander’s versatility by portraying him on an elephant: first said to have terrorised Alexander’s warriors during the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), elephants were initially used by the Persian Empire and the Indian Empire against the Macedonian army before Alexander adopted them as part of his own military tactics. It is the great leader’s incredible ability to adapt and innovate when confronted with cultural novelty that Paik calls attention to in this work.
Like Paik’s journey, the story of Alexander the Great investigates trans-national exploration. The Macedonian king is remembered through history for his incredible ability to unify Greece and expand its borders to include modern-day Syria and Egypt, among others. The parallelism between Paik and Alexander extends beyond physical movement to encompass beliefs and sensibilities. Paik re-appropriates old electronics just as Alexander the Great incorporated elements of the cultures he conquered to strengthen his empire. Paik explores how technology establishes connections between different cultures and harbours a concern for defining and preserving personal identity in the era of instantaneous communication and mass media technologies.
Playfully including himself as a cultural nomad next to Alexander the Great and other iconic historic leaders in the gardens of the German Pavilion, Paik merges all his historical and artistic sensibilities to reflect on his own migration between different countries, cultures, and languages. Paik 's powerful sculpture is not only the iconic portrait of an extraordinary leader from ancient history and a seminalexample of the artist’s experimentation with new media, but is also a nuanced testament to the artist’s own fascination with crosscultural communication and trans-national relations. It is precisely this transcendent intercultural quality and timely sentiment that garnered the artist the Golden Lion Award that year for Best Artist Pavilion for “best capturing the transnational spirit of the Biennale.”