SFMOMA stages monumental nam june paik exhibit as a mesmerizing riot of sights + sounds

May 11, 2021

from now through october 3, 2021, a mesmerizing riot of sights and sounds pervades the san francisco museum of modern art (SFMOMA) with an exhibition of more than 200 works by visionary experimental artist nam june paik. born in seoul during the japanese occupation of korea, paik lived and worked in japan, germany and the united states, reflecting a global connectedness that transcended cultural borders. prior to experimenting with performance and technology in the 1960s, he studied music theory and trained as a musician. his multidisciplinary practice developed across a huge range of media — from music to performance and technology — in groundbreaking ways. paik has become synonymous with the electronic image through an output of manipulated TV sets, live performances, global television broadcasts, single-channel videos and video installations — many of which can be discovered across SFMOMA’s gallery spaces.

the major retrospective of paik’s radical and experimental art is curated by rudolf frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA, and sook-kyung lee, senior research curator at tate, with andrea nitsche-krupp, assistant curator at SFMOMA. designboom spoke with rudolf frieling about paik’s famous role in establishing the field of ‘video art’, the US-premiere of ‘sistine chapel’ at SFMOMA, and the humanity, humor and charm of paik’s work — read on for the interview.

organized thematically, the exhibition at SFMOMA unites many of paik’s most innovative, provocative, and entertaining works from throughout his five-decade career, from early compositions and performances to large-scale video installations and global satellite projects. on view is ‘TV garden’ (1974–77/2002), an immersive installation comprising dozens of TV sets set within the lush foliage of a futuristic landscape, where technology and the natural world collide. unique to the presentation are two robots, one each dedicated to composer john cage and choreographer merce cunningham — two of paik’s key collaborators. the robots, among many other works, highlight paik’s creative partnerships and collaborative artistic practice. the retrospective culminates in the dazzling installation ‘sistine chapel’, the golden lion award-winning work of the 1993 venice biennale, where sound and images emanate from dozens of projectors, enveloping the audience in an audio-visual remix of paik’s past videos and collaborators.

for those at home, SFMOMA presents paik’s ‘video commune’ online. originally broadcast on live TV in 1970, the work was an improvised montage of distorted TV imagery accompanied by songs by the beatles. at the time, paik invited random passersby into the studio and let them remix video images as they aired. made accessible as a participatory work on the exhibition webpage, visitors are invited to watch the silent video and create a soundtrack of their choice from a selection of beatles songs.

DB: with more than 200 works spanning multiple disciplines and a five-decade career, what was the criteria in selecting the works for the show? is there a common thread that underpins the work overall?

rudolf frieling (RF): apart from selecting works from literally the beginning to the very last years, thus spanning his entire career, we were interested in highlighting paik’s famous role in establishing a whole field called ‘video art.’ the main thesis of the retrospective is to explore paik as a transnational collaborator and performer whose entire career literally came out of music and continued to engage with music through works in all media. a second important aspect for the touring exhibition, but particularly for its san francisco presentation, was the inclusion of major works from our own collection — a rare opportunity to highlight the range of works by one artist through a concerted effort of collecting his work in order to help us tell more diverse and often neglected stories in art.

DB: how does the exhibition unfold across SFMOMA’s spaces, and what are some of the highlights?

RF: the big bang before visitors exit the retrospective is certainly the US-premiere of paik’s immersive 360-degree video environment ‘sistine chapel’, restaged for the first time after its first showing in 1993 in the german pavilion of the venice biennial. in close collaboration with paik’s former assistant and curator of the estate, jon huffman, this extravaganza is a far cry from the slick and seamless immersive environments that are currently en vogue. this is the irreverent, noisy and imperfect way of occupying an architecture including the ceiling, and at the same time a remix of paik’s previous work in video — prefiguring almost 30 years ago a whole culture of remix and mashups performing in an utterly randomized way of constantly mixing four channels of discrete footage.

DB: what does the exhibition reveal about about paik’s dialogue with traditions from both eastern and western cultures?

RF: rudyard kipling famously said that ‘east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet,’ to which paik responded with a satellite program titled ‘bye-bye kipling’. that in essence is paik’s program, stating again and again that they do meet, although they might not understand each other. in response to his insertion of original japanese pepsi commercials in one of his earliest TV-experiments, one could ask why an american audience should be exposed to that. at this point, paik would say, why not? after all, it’s the same visual grammar and although you might not understand japanese, you do get the message and you realize that we do live in a world where images are distributed globally 24/7. with that in mind, paik continued to draw and write in multiple languages on the same piece of paper or sculpture. it is the ‘gestalt’ of a work that one understands, not all particular layers of meaning.

DB: in developing the exhibition, what did you learn about paik’s life and practice that you might not have previously known? did anything surprise you?

RF: listening to paik speak was never easy. his accent, soft manner, and his associative abbreviated way of speaking not one but even multiple languages in one sentence obscured for me initially the depth of his thinking and his extreme erudition. he would choose to perform a version of a poor korean, a simple musician, or even a prankster as his artistic ‘persona,’ but his practice was in fact deeply embedded in a rich history of philosophy and literature in both east and west. we can only scratch the surface of that continuous writing as a ‘nomad’, as he would call himself, by placing select quotes in specific galleries as a comment to the thematic focus in that space. on that note, we will also ask contemporary artists and performers to respond to select writings by paik for a virtual performance program in the fall.

DB: what do you hope visitors come away with? what new perspectives can be uncovered about paik’s radical and provocative approach?

RF: I hope visitors will enjoy paik’s radical challenge to our traditional notions of music and art, charmed by his wit as well as his sheer irreverence. this feels refreshing, again and again.

DB: what do you think makes the work of paik so significant and beloved to this day?

RF: paik’s reception has changed over the decades, shaped by our comfort level with technology in the arts. today, living as we do in such a private/public screen culture, everybody can connect easily to the sheer complexity and layered collage of paik’s signature style. that said, we recognize ourselves and our past in the multiplicity of mass media references, especially with the way that he incorporated pop culture, but that’s not why we love him. I would argue that feeling is reserved for the humanity he brings to the works, his charm and humor, and his oftentimes surprising simplicity in some of his iconic and zen-inspired sculptures like TV buddha or the candle projection. as a curator, I would only add that his contemporary significance today is also due to his transnational work and life, a mind constantly at work creating bridges and dialogues between east and west, such a role model for artists who need to think globally in order to reflect the complexities of the 21st century.

timm rautert, nam june paik lying among televisions, zürich, 1991; © timm rautert

nam june paik, TV garden, 1974–77/2002 (installation view, stedelijk museum amsterdam); kunstsammlung nordrhein-westfalen, düsseldorf; © estate of nam june paik; photo by peter tijhuis

exhibition information:

nam june paik

venue: SFMOMA

location: 151 third street, san francisco, CA

dates: may 8 – october 3, 2021