The art of Nam June Paik is tricky to pin down. True to his background as a classical musician, he conducted seemingly disparate practices and mediums to create grand, frenetic works and performances that can be simultaneously ephemeral and enduring. He transformed TVs into cellos, spectators into subjects, and, at least through his art, entire cities into electronic superhighways. Even today, his futuristic visions continue to resonate with people from avant-garde filmmakers to computer programmers.
Nam June Paik in Manila, which opened last October 22, is touted to be the first exhibition to bring his works to Philippine shores (later in the evening, the film archiving champion Teddy Co would bring relevant documents to the opening, which says that a couple of the artist's works have been shown at the Thomas Jefferson Library in the past). It is co-presented by the Gagosian Gallery and Léon Gallery, which recently auctioned off Andres Bonifacio’s flag for P9.3 million. The show is not an introduction or a retrospective of his body of work, nor is it obligated to be so. What emerges is a different facet of Nam June Paik’s practice, focusing on his objects and paintings. The oldest work from 1982, Tang Poetry on Color Bar Op. 36, is crowned with a TV antenna—a cheeky reversal of the idea of a canvas and a screen as polar opposites. Paint lasts longer than cathode ray tubes, and the works at Nam June Paik in Manila are likely to find their way to collectors’ living rooms.
However, the stars of the exhibition are the sculptural works. One Candle blurs the lines between the digital and analog with an exposed flame in a gutted-out television. There’s the frenetic Bakelite Robot, a product of his longstanding fascination with automatons. At the opening night of the show, the meditating TV Buddha was joined by gallery goers waving at the screen.
There’s also a certain recognition of how the very technology he harnessed is also subject to decay and obsolescence—this emerges in his later work from 2005, a year before his death. Decades ago, RCA Television-Radio, Singer Television, and Untitled (Video Magnavox Camera) would have been components of his installations, broadcasting the frenetic moving images he’s famous for. To paint over them is to obscure what would have made them functional--if their components still worked. They’re artifacts of mass production repurposed as works of art. Instead of resisting change, one might as well go with the flow.
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Paintings and painted-on photographs dominated the Manila show.
The artist's shirt on display
The TV Buddha
Another perspective of what is certainly the most engaging work in the show
"Mein Freund”, (Joseph Beuys) : Photograph with Additions of Acrylic Paint and Permanent Marker
Untitled, 2002, Silkscreen on Canvas with Additions of Acrylic Paint, Costume Jewelry, Plastic Robots
Bakelite Robot, 2002
Detail, Untitled, 2005, Permanent Oil Marker and Acrylic Paint on Canvas
Singer Television (2005), Vintage Television with Additions of Permanent Oil Marker and Acrylic Paint
Portrait of the artist as father of video art
While he may be canonized in art and film history now, that’s not to stop one from mentioning anti-establishment in the same breath. He was among the pioneering artists to champion video, elevating the humble, inexpensive medium to new heights. His legacy continues to shift in relation to technology not just in terms of philosophical or cultural thought, but its development as rapidly propelled by economics, science, and innovation that is often the result of chance.
True to the spirit of the “electronic superhighway”, which Paik coined, communications technology has enabled his work to reach a velocity beyond what a physical object is capable of. The internet may now be an extension of how we engage with his art, but to see the works firsthand is still an experience of its own. Nam June Paik in Manila presents the rare opportunity to do so before the works are swept up once more by the international art circuit.
Photographs by Deiniel Cuvin and Leon Gallery International