In the 1960s, James Turrell produced a series of works that utilised the interaction between light and space to explore how the perception of light can evoke emotional responses. The spiritual atmosphere and unique optical aesthetic of his works made him a pioneer in the field. Subsequently, many other Californian artists also attempted to capture the beauty of light by adopting sunlight as a creative element. An important practitioner of light-based art is the father of video art Nam June Paik. His study of optical images have had a powerful influence on 20th century art, and his impact on culture and everyday life is far-reaching. Each television set in his work not only displays an image, it transcends the traditional boundaries between sound, installation, visual art, and interactive experience. Nam June Paik’s work heralded a new category of experience called New Media, which would become an inseparable part of everyone’s lives in the future.
In an age where smartphones, computers, and advertising billboards are ubiquitous, the videocassette recorders, television sets, carpentry, and readymade elements that Nam June Paik used to produce his artworks seem archaic. But when this innovative assemblage was first shown in the 1960s, it was new and forward-thinking. It was a breakthrough that paved the way for media experimentation in contemporary art for the next five decades. Artworks were no longer limited to visual presentations. They could be multi-sensory experiences that spanned multiple disciplines. This development ignited a global new media movement. In the 1970s, Paik collaborated with cellist Charlotte Moorman to produce a performance where cello music was played through television sets. She wore a garment enhanced with electronic elements, and they titled the work Becoming Robots to imagine how humans and technology can become one. Looking at the current state of development in our society, Nam June Paik’s works have proven to be prophetic.
Nam June Paik’s extraordinary sensibilities in music, visual arts, literature, and other cultural endeavours had made him an expert multi-discipline artist. Born in South Korea in 1932, Nam June Paik received classical piano training, which helped him to develop an acute sensitivity to music. Later when the war broke out, Nam June Paik spent his days in an unstable and resources deprived environment. The artist gravitated towards using discarded objects as readymades and turned them into artworks that are rich in Buddhist teachings. In the 1960s, he shared unprecedented success with contemporaries such as George Maciunas, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Ay-O. Underneath the veneer of his readymades, Nam June Paik reveals deeper spiritual and philosophical implications: that even the most cuttingedge electronic products will one day become relics of the past. The head of Baby Buddha is a Philco Predicta television. Made in the 1950s, it was the world’s first swivel screen television. What was once at the frontier of innovations has now become an object of nostalgia in the 2000s.
The videos in Baby Buddha (Lot 29) show different kinds of Buddhist mudras. Mudras are hand gestures that Buddha made when he reached different stages of enlightenment. As such, they are among the most important symbols in Buddhist art. Eight different video recorders playback different mudras in a loop on different televisions. The entire ensemble is powered by electricity operating on electronic media. It is a meditation ritual that is fuelled by technology. Such transcendence gives the artwork its soul. Will technology become a religion for the next generation? Produced in 2001, Baby Buddha raises a question that we are still pondering to this day. Drawing parallels between the rapid development of media technology and the solemnity of religion, television’s power of disseminating information is comparable to religion’s primary objective of proselytising. Philosophical thinking and traditional values are being challenged by the flood of new technologies and developments. Will they enable religion to reach a broader audience more
effectively? How should religion represent itself to future generations? Will these precious cultural heritage, thoughts, and spirituality be buried under dazzling moving images? Contemplation and stimulation coexist in this piece. One cannot help but pause to think how will the transition occur between the two. This is also what the artist wants us to consider — the humanisation of technology.
"I want to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely asLeonardo,
as freely as Picasso,
as colorfully as Renoir,
as profoundly as Mondrian,
as violently as Pollock and
as lyrically as Jasper Johns." - Paik Nam June (1969)
Just as Nam June Paik himself described, he utilized the television screen to realize a grand artistic vision, cementing his place in art history. His contributions greatly influenced generations of artists that came after him, and he carved out a new place for new-media art as well as cross-cultural discourses with a truly international purview. Nam June Paik’s moving image concept, philosophy, and cultural insight established a significant milestone in contemporary art history. Guggenheim Museum staged a comprehensive solo exhibition in 2000— entitled The Worlds of Nam June Paik, the show rang in the new millennium and also travelled to South Korea and Spain. In 2018, Nam June Paik’s works continue to be exhibited in world class museums such as Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, and Museu Colecao Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal. The staying power of his works is a testament to their timelessness and visionary qualities.