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The powerful discourses of Paik Nam June’s art is rooted in his movement from Asia through Europe to United States, translating his nomadic life and global experiences into an arresting new visions, assembling his discoveries in unpredictable new formations. Paik never failed to surprise the viewer with his raw aesthetic sensibilities and avant-garde concepts, ones that were rooted in history and yet fully contemporary, stringing together cultural, economic, and artistic influences from the 1960s to 20th Century under the facade of the modern medium of technology. The core of his inspiration began when Paik’s family fled from the Korean War to Hong Kong, and to Japan, where Paik developed a fervent interest in history of art and music at the University Tokyo; he eventually furthered his studies for at Munich University in Germany in 1958; 1958 later became a crucial year for Paik in nurturing his innate intelligence into his very own intoxicating utopian world. His early acquaintance with John Cage, the American experimental composer, transformed Paik’s life by involving him in the avant-garde music scene and the activities of the Fluxus movement. Seeking to redefine traditional aesthetics by provoking irrational situations that leap outside order and predictability, he articulated his Dadaist spirit. The Fluxus group was an ideal domain for Paik to find expression for his dormant creativity: ‘Fluxus art fun should just be simple, entertaining and undermining, it should be about insignificant things, it shouldn’t require special skills and countless rehearsals, it should have no commercial or institutional value.’- George Maciunams.
In 1963, and still working within the uninhibited realm of Fluxus, that Paik held his historic exhibition, the first exhibition in which television was adopted as medium for high art. Paik staged 13 customized television sets with a shocking invitation of a dead bull’s head, hung in front of the gallery in Germany. His idiosyncratic and legendary performances combining music, sculpture and paintings all claimed the audience’s full attention, demanding multi-sensory interaction with his visual, auditory, physical and psychological strategies. The cross-fertilization of mediums, multidimensionality and simultaneity were all key as Paik found harmony mixing high and low art, the traditional and the modern, to breed a witty transcultural multi-media works, perceptively engaging the viewer with vibrantly textured digital images, sharpening our hearing with conflicting mix of synthesized sounds, inviting the viewer to meander around the three-dimensionality of his work, a cheeky, puckish sense of humor suggested by the com-mingling of historical figures and his playful reinterpretation of their characters.
“Bill Clinton Stole My Idea” – Paik Name June
While Paik explored how technology established connections between different cultures, he was aware of the simultaneous concern for defining personal identity and the urge to preserve individual consciousness especially in the era of instantaneous, mass media technologies of communication. Walter Benjamin famously posited that ‘the history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form’ and, indeed, it was Paik’s acute awareness of technology’s relationship to socio-cultural change that garnered him the prestigious Gold Lion award for his contribution to the German Pavilion at the Venice biennale in 1993. Under the theme of Artists as Nomads, Paik presented a large scale project - Electronic Superhighway-from Venice to Ulan Bator, including reconstructions of cultural heroes such as Marco Polo, King Tangun, Attila the king of the Huns, Crimean Tartar, Catherine the Great; and Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Paik re-imagines these iconic warriors and leaders as adventuresome, quixotic artists, and as such each portrait is in some way also a self-portrait. Playfully including himself as a cultural nomad, this exhibition is perhaps his quest to collide all its historical and artistic sensibilities as a collection of his many personas, as a self-reflective exhibition of his migration between different countries, cultures, language, and also as a symbol for media immersion and in his reluctance to be defined or rooted into one rubric.
By “rehabilitating” Genghis Khan, Paik addresses the idea of cultural exchange with a simple and clever proposal of bicycle as a literal portrayal of exchange. Shrewdly exploiting the pictorial idiom of a bicycle and its wheel; Paik knowingly incorporated the civilizing and historical trait it embodies as the most momentous discovery in moving the world forward towards our modern technology. Taking a shape of a tool for an almost childish gratification, the notorious founder of Mongolia is amiably clothed in colorful poncho and a vintage diving gear, hauling a clumsily stacked bundle of machineries, physically delivering information on his bike. Silly and irrational, the audience is left with a pleasant grin as we realize that the innocently mischievous nature of Paik himself is hidden behind the masked protagonist. These objects are assigned new meanings in Paik’s human economy as he implements radical recipes in his artistic constructs, honoring the long legacy established by Marcel Duchamp with his readymades. Ridiculing and stripping away the practical function of rusty diving gear and a worn-out poncho, he inserts new social contexts and purpose to these objects; they become catalysts in triggering a visual puzzle, reducing the intimidating figure of Genghis Khan an oddly irrelevant and comic figure. This endearing figure contains deeper historical allusions, staged with recontextualized artifacts to echo the solid and collective social bonds of a nomadic society as the backdrop to their stable power and state security; thus, scripting a metaphoric notion of his nomadic mixed medium and a sense of plurality of them.
The humanist extraction of technology is exploited to its utmost capacity in a quirky and futuristic replica, aptly positioning the monitor as the core of Khan’s body to personify the production and transmission of video images as his soul. The versatile waves of kinetic forms unravels and articulates the command of Genghis Khan, emitting frequencies of information and data, parallel to his historical input in uniting the nomadic tribes under one unified political environment, thus his success in expanding the horizons of the West and Middle East by advancing trade and communication through the silk road. Clearly manifested and constructed in similar economical remedy by constructing the ‘Scythian Road’ to connect East and West within the Venice Biennale, Paik’s sheer curiosity and fearless will to evolve and ignoring rationality has awarded his works to preserve a sense of universalism through work that transcends beyond definition and classification. Constantly in fluctuation and in exchange of new modes of information and data, Paik shares a mutual framework for autobiographical reference with Genghis Khan in their meritocracy, support to science, intelligence, innovation and openness to new knowledge.
“The Future is Now” – Paik Nam June
If Genghis Khan extended rule over an expansive empire over Asia, Paik established a new media empire, infinite in its creative production, sharing the same scale and scope of strategy in their advocacy for building a modern world, and destroying institutions and ancient civilization. It was through his ready-made medium of technology that he defied the conventional artistic idea of creation, constructing his unique niche for utilizing new media technology as a tool for displaying a sprawling synthesis of the imaginary, reality and absurdity; and picture, sculpture and performance all at once. Nevertheless, Paik’s savvy tweaking of electromagnetic verified that he too can investigate all academic aspects of painting through the use of his ‘TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo; as freely as Picasso; as colorfully as Renoire; as profoundly as Mondrian; as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.’ By manipulating the electronic canvas of video, television as an effective cultural agent and as a commodity in a capitalist economy, he circulated a global satellite of multiple channels of temporal images and auditory messages through snap shots of optical disturbances that indicate the wrapping of reality and static flickering and malfunction of its screen in symbolism of the unsettled harsh and fragile reality, full of assassination attempts and threats on Genghis Khan’s life. Demonstrating man’s will to survive, Genghis Khan’s eager spirit kept him in force to build a global empire through his devoted endeavor to circulate knowledge, hence contributing heavily to the initiation of the modern, capitalist economy that we live in today.
Aware of the social significance of medium and the command of television in transforming society, Paik makes analogous promises to the command of Genghis Khan in transforming society; uttering their experience of time and space, delegating network of strong transmission ranges and communication to the people, symbolically presented through the pulsating sequence of images that change its form between flowers, earth, heart, bird, fish, historical sites and psychedelic patterns, all actively engaged in exchanging their form and visual language. Its deep-seated issues within the shift in universal economics of cultural production and reception is broadcasted and received in television’s images showcasing horizons of informative exchanges of language, ideas and customs. Like so, both television and Genghis Khan emerged cultures to develop a new cognition that could further the continuous desire for advancement and exploration, consenting to Marshall McLuhan’s theory on ‘the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.’
Corresponding to the economical infra-structure of Mongolia which contributed into a stronger, uniformed and internationally competitive country under Genghis Khan’s rule, Paik’s aesthetic infrastructure of a bicycle, television, audio, poncho and diving gear accumulate a strong cross-cultural reference to model his liberal, cultural, political and economical pluralism by proposing exchange of new modes of information and data. As a conceptual installation that broadcast theoretical fragments, The Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan unravels historical ramifications in a homogeneous and internationally understood narrative and visual Through altering the materiality and electronic fields of the television, Paik defined a new form of creative expression and statement of liberation that soon paved ways for many young artists by challenging audiences and opening art to new possibilities in advocacy for young artists to fearlessly break away from conventional art practice and to imaginatively progress together with the changing media environment, establishing Paik’s profound originality as one of the most phenomenal and global influence in 20th century art.
Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art
Nam June Paik