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'Nam June Paik' Review - Tate Modern

17th October 2019 – 9th February 2020

Standard - £13

Concessions £12

Tate Collective - £5


Everyone who has been to Tate Modern before, has probably seen Nam June Paik’s (1993-2006) work. The Korean-born artist, known for his experimental video art, has his own spot in Tate’s permanent exhibition rooms. Tate is clearly fond of the work he has created throughout his life, and he has had multiple solo exhibitions at the museum in the past. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that this new exhibition, featuring installation works by Paik that haven’t been shown since the 90’s, is a humble and loving ode to the artist, and his collaborators.

Something notable about the exhibition is how it doesn’t stick to chronology in its display of Paik’s works, which is something that Tate is often inclined to do. The first room in this show starts not with Paik’s early works, but rather a collection of works displaying philosophical reflections. Paik, who was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism throughout his life, incorporated Eastern philosophy within a Western process. As the curators described, the artist was always somewhat mystical about his exploration of Zen, therefore it is kept as a mystery-element throughout the show as well. Paik’s famous TV-garden (1974-77) is also an eye-catcher in the first room: an array of television sets alongside live plants create a landscape combining technology with nature, evoking feelings of 70’s futurism.

Nam June Paik TV Sunglasses 1971 Collection & © The Estate of Nam June Paik

This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition: a fest of futuristic nostalgia. After introducing key themes in his work, the exhibition continues with showing the artist’s major influences: classical music composition, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charlotte Moorman, and Joseph Beuys.

Room three, an important introduction to Paik’s interest musical composition, is an emotionally arbitrary collection of objects and anarchistic artworks, such as a piano Paik created in honour of his friend and avant-garde composer John Cage, which Cage then went on to destroy. Paik liked the idea behind it so much that he left the piano in its state of decay. The display behind the piano aims to strike the same kind of experimental daring that most of Paik’s works entail, but with a plastic cover and a wire in front to prevent viewers from stepping too close, it feels like the work loses an essential part of the chaotic message it spread at its first display.

© The Estate of Nam June Paik

A definite highlight of the exhibition is the ‘Transmission’ room, a dark space with a wall of televisions. Already from the late 60’s onwards, Paik incorporated ideas of long-distance communication through broadcasting and other telecommunication technologies. Broadcasts and satellite projects like Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) (a reference to the famous author) and Bye Bye Kipling, linked live updates from cities like New York, Seoul and Paris together in what Paik called the ‘Electronic Superhighway.’ These ideas about state-crossing communication through revolutionary means of technology are generally seen as a prediction for the communication we now enjoy through the Internet. This is likely the reason why Paik’s Internet Dream (1993) is included the same room, once again basing the curation on themes rather than chronology.

Another point of emphasis in the exhibition was Paik’s contribution to Fluxus, an international collective that was founded in the 1960’s. Fluxus’ ethos incorporated the same experimental values as Paik, but even here, Paik was often considered too anarchistic in his ideas, although he was considered one of the pioneers in its movement. A hallway leading to the last rooms in the exhibition displays pamphlets and news headlines from Fluxus’ presence in the 60’s, functioning as a transition to the largest room of the exhibition, centred around Paik’s collaborative relationship with cellist Charlotte Moorman. Paik and Moorman shared the vision of classical music as an erotic art form, and Moorman was known for her controversial topless performances, for which she was arrested in 1967 due to “indecent exposure”. The two chaotic artists were close friends and Paik was deeply struck by Moorman’s early death. The room in the exhibition displays video art by Paik referencing classical music (e.g. two televisions piled up like a cello), old posters with collaboration announcements, and a vast display of the eccentric clothing Moorman used to wear. But although the loving relationship between the two is clearly displayed, the position and spatial choice for this room seems a little off: the room feels like the centre of the exhibition, and a display of Paik’s solo ventures would seem more fitting than an ode to a friend. Such a feeling that is echoed in the next room, which is a commemoration of Paik’s friendship with Joseph Beuys.

Sistine Chapel 1993. Install view, Tate Modern 2019. Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

Despite this, the last room of the show is phenomenal. The viewer is lured inside the Sistine Chapel, a large installation piece spanning over the four walls and the ceiling of the room. Loud sounds drum through your ears as you walk through the metallic structure, while imagery of traditional Korean performances is mixed with American porn and more unintelligible media footage on over 40 projectors, switching videos at random. Tate Modern defines it as Paik’s “own way of summarising his artistic career with video,” and through its placement in the exhibition, it genuinely feels like it is.

This exhibition is the first time since 1993 that the Sistine Chapel has been displayed, which adds to the general feeling of fond nostalgia and an ode to the ‘Founder of video art.’ Although the exhibition lacks the same fiery anarchist character that Paik often displayed in his works, which makes it feel a little too safe at times, it is not only a love letter to the artist, but also a thank you note. It connects the futuristic vintage, with a deep admiration, into a loving tribute.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor


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