In Sync With The Future

In Sync With The Future Mary S. Chen, 3/29/00


In this high-tech age, it is no surprise that art has taken on a technological twist.


Nam June Paik, a Korean-born artist now based in New York, is one of the first to introduce multi-media into the vocabulary of art-making. His large-scaled video and laser art presently transform the stark rotunda and ramps of the Guggenheim Museum into a futuristic spectacle. The Worlds of Nam June Paik presents a dynamic vision encapsulated in an array of works that span the artist's three decade-long career.


The show starts off with a bang before you even reach the ticket booth. Green laser beams zigzag through a seven-story high waterfall that drizzles down to the rotunda, where 100 upturned television sets flash disjointed images and blare fragmented music. Opposite to the semi-circular arrangement of TV sets are colorful geometric shapes drawn in laser and projected onto a white screen suspended from the skylight. The large video screens hanging between the ramps and across the laser waterfall frame the television sets on the ground and complete the four-way installation. Featured in video are cultural performances from Rio to Seoul to Jerusalem, some of which appear on the TV screens below. The composition is clearly custom-designed to fit the architecture of the Guggenheim. Created in 2000, Jacob's Ladder, Modulation in Sync, and Sweet and Sublime juxtapose the artist's earlier mediums - video and music - with his latest - laser. The minimalism of the laser contrasts with the flashiness of the video. Dramatic and impressionistic, these installations involve the viewer in a sensory experience that is not easily comprehensible, but leaves a memorable impact.


As the exhibition continues up the ramps, it gradually moves backwards in time. Tucked away in a back room on the first ramp are other works of laser art created between 1997 and 2000, entitled Three Elements. Projected through spinning prisms in large mirror-backed geometric structures, the lasers ricochet off the side panels. The darkness of the room accentuates the concentrated color in the beams.


Earlier notable works mix real life with life portrayed through video. Video Fish from 1975 contains aquariums filled with live fish placed in front of a row of TVs showing various video clips. In TV Garden, television monitors of various sizes are"planted" at different angles in a lush garden of greens, alluding to the compatibility between the real and the artificial, nature and technology.


Video as sculpture was an idea Paik toyed with in the 1980s. In 1986, he constructed an electronic Family of Robot, complete with Grandmother, Grandfather, and Hi-tech Baby. Television monitors and old-fashioned radio casings were used to construct heads, arms, and legs. Two years later in 1988, he created his own version of a Swiss Clock, complete with three monitors and a video camera.


Only a few pieces in the exhibition point to Paik's Asian ancestry, as his thirst for exploration and the avant-garde led him to study modern Western music and move to the West, first to Germany, and then to New York. However, he does seem to pay a certain tribute to the Buddha, a religious figure worshiped particularly in the East. Video Buddha, made between 1976 and 1978, displays a roughly sculpted bronze Buddha looking down at a live black and white video image of himself encased in a pile of dirt. Whether the artist is aiming to put down the Buddha as"dirty" or revere him as"earthy" is unclear. At the top of the ramp is a felt and wood Mongolian Tent inhabited by not just one, but several Ugly Buddhas carved out of bronze. They sit cross-legged on sand, with one watching an Ugly TV, while a Western singer's performance is projected inside the tent.


In the final area at the top of the ramp is a room devoted to Paik's early works, which include photographs of his audio works and performances of pieces composed during the radical Fluxus movement in the 1960s. Interesting to watch on video is the collaboration between Paik and Charlotte Moorman, a classically trained cellist who performed the avant-garde pieces Paik composed for her on a TV Cello wearing a TV Bra and TV Glasses. The interactive pieces where visitors can create screechy sounds on strips of audiotape stuck on the wall or manipulate the shape of a loop on a TV screen by talking or singing into a microphone attached to the monitor are fun.


Overall, the Nam June Paik retrospective at the Guggenheim is a delight to the senses. Paik has truly explored the possibilities of media as a creative and interactive medium. Compared to the video art of today, Paik's work emphasizes cultural commentary more than personal expression. But, beware - the exhibit is huge, so it would be a good idea to pace yourself, so you don't run the risk of being overwhelmed. While you may not walk out of the exhibit fully grasping the artist's intent, you will certainly appreciate the effect of his work and his desire for innovation.