What happens when high-tech collides with high culture? In the retrospective exhibit "The Worlds of Nam June Paik" at the Guggenheim, what happens is an explosion of light and electrons, lasers and sound, transforming the usual museum experience of hushed reverence into something more akin to the disco distractions of "Saturday Night Fever." The man responsible for juicing up the venerable institution on Fifth Avenue is a 68-year-old Korean-born New Yorker, Nam June Paik, pioneer of video and electronic art, avant-garde collaborationist, mad musician, television wizard.
Many regard Paik as the creator of the video art genre. He earned this distinction when he acquired, in 1965, one of the first portable video cameras to be made available to the public (by Sony), recording his first video, "Button Happening," the same day and displaying it at the Cafi au Go Go that evening. Organized by John Hanhardt, senior curator of film and media arts (who also curated Paik's 1982 retrospective at the Whitney Museum), with Jon Ippolito, assistant curator, "The Worlds of Nam June Paik" follows the vector of Paik's experiments in performance art, television projects and sculptural video installations to his multichannel video environments and "post-video" laser projects.
Occupying the enormous column of space in the Guggenheim's rotunda is the exhibition's centerpiece, "Modulations in Sync," a four-part installation newly commissioned by the museum and completed by Paik and Norman Ballard, an expert in laser technology. One part, called "Sweet and Sublime," hovers miraculously at the top of the rotunda, where parti-colored lasers spiral on a scrim set in the dome's oculus. "Jacob's Ladder," a seven-story waterfall with green lasers zigzagging through it at oblique angles, spills down from one side of the dome. Then, on the rotunda floor, 100 video monitors, with screens facing up, flash seemingly random images: Lou Reed singing, Merce Cunningham dancing, a computer-generated face, a marathon runner, birds flying across a computer-generated moon. These images are simultaneously projected onto six large screens set vertically into the spaces between the spiral ramp across from the laser waterfall. With the 100 video monitors, Paik has created an astonishing high-tech update of trompe l'oeil: What seems to be an inchoate jumble of rapid-fire images on the ground floor resolves, when viewed from high at the top of the museum's ramp spiral, into a beautifully patterned TV painting.
The museum's central areas -- the rotunda and ramp galleries -- are lighted only by the glow of cathode-ray tubes and beams from laser projections. Music from "Modulations in Sync" pounds through every aural crevice. This is art as dance-hall spectacle, a phenomenon whose roots reach back to the happenings and acid tests of the 1960s. And like a disco, the experience at first feels off-putting, a frontal assault on the primary sense. But when you consider that Paik helped originate some of the first happenings of the early '60s, the disco curatorial style reveals a certain ingenuity.
Paik began his career in Germany in the late 1950s, studying modern classical music. While there, he hooked up with enormously influential neodadaist composer John Cage, as well as with the burgeoning anti-art movement orbiting around George Maciunas' Fluxus group, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. For happenings and performances like the Festum Fluxorum, Paik created pieces such as "One for Violin Solo" (1962), in which the performer raises a violin above his head and smashes it.
Excited by Cage's "prepared piano," Paik built "Klavier Integral" (1958-63) for his first one-man exhibition, "Exposition of Music-Electronic Television," which contained a number of prepared instruments. The "Klavier Integral" was a piano "decorated with barbed wire, dolls, photographs, toys, a bra, smashed eggs, and the various odds and ends that Paik incorporated into his performance." During the opening of "Exposition of Music-Electronic Television," Beuys, in an impromptu action, entered and destroyed one of the pianos with an ax.
In 1964, Paik moved to New York, continuing his work with performance artists while becoming increasingly interested in finding ways "to humanize the technology and the electronic medium" -- that is, he started to make art with TVs and video. Also in New York, Paik formed his most important collaborative relationship, with avant-garde cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, whom he worked with until her death in 1994. For Moorman, Paik constructed infamous pieces such as "TV Bra for Living Sculpture" (1969), two Plexiglas-encased televisions taped to Moorman's breasts while she played the cello, and "TV Cello" (1971), an instrument made of three televisions of varying sizes encased in Plexiglas. Moorman, interviewed in Paik's video "Global Groove" (1973), called "TV Cello" the "first advance in the cello since 1600." Trying to address the question "Why is sex a predominant theme in art and literature, prohibited ONLY in music?" Paik staged "Opera Sextronique" (1967), for which Moorman performed a striptease while playing the cello. She was then arrested for public indecency.
The Guggenheim's Tower Gallery has been reserved for documenting these early works and collaborative performances and for viewing Paik's videos. There visitors can play with early interactive pieces, which do things like convert a person's voice into abstract television images or create music by allowing one to rub the head of a tape player over strips of audiotape stuck on a wall. The High Gallery, just off the ground floor, is taken over by "Three Elements" (1997-2000), a collaboration with Ballard. The wall text for "Three Elements" explains that it consists of lasers, mirrored chambers, motors, prisms and smoke. And, indeed, it is a smoke-and-mirrors show: Three large, shaped chambers -- rectangle, circle and triangle -- form a sort of mirrored canvas across which lasers shoot their abstract lines in an atmosphere of green and red candescence. If the main gallery area produces the effect of a dance-hall spectacle, these two offshoot galleries, with their interactive works and displays of technological prowess, seem organized in art-as-science-fair spirit.
Humor and a sly, ironic sensibility save Paik's work from the doldrums of experiment for experiment's sake. The works in the main gallery tend to fall somewhere along a spectrum whose two poles are funniness and questioning self-mockery, while addressing more stolid concerns like temporality in a genial and lighthearted manner. "Candle TV" (1975, 2000 version), a real candle burning inside a TV cabinet, points to the fact that TVs have taken on an altarlike centrality in most homes. Similarly, "Video Buddha" (1976-78), which places a Buddha sculpture in front of a monitor set in a dirt mound, so that the Buddha can watch himself on closed-circuit TV, comments wittily on our oldest and newest sacraments.
Apparently, Paik has a thing for fish. He uses them in works that aim toward the gap between representation and reality. "Real Fish/Live Fish" (1982, 2000 version) employs two vintage TV cabinets because the extremely convex screens of older TVs look more like fishbowls. Set into one cabinet is a real fish tank with live fish that sits in front of a closed-circuit TV camera; the other cabinet contains a functioning monitor on which you can view real-time images of the fish in the tank next to it. Within the closed circuit, the TVs function both as sender and receiver of the fish images. In "Video Fish" (1975, 2000 version), a horizontal bank of TV cabinets with real fish swimming inside them sits in front of monitors on which a video of random images plays, so that one looks through the fish tanks to view the video. Of course, this also allows the fish to watch TV while they swim.
In addition to the fish pieces, the show includes a number of works that make metaphoric use of TVs for humorous or inquisitive ends. "TV Clock" (1963, 2000 version) positions 24 monitors in a row at eye level, each with a single electronic line angled like a clock's hour hand set at a different hour of the day. "Moon Is the Oldest TV: Colored Version" (2000) makes the clever argument that the moon, because it reflects light from the sun, functions like a primitive television receiver. Perhaps the largest of the show's installations, "TV Garden" (1974, 2000 version) scatters TV monitors with Paik's video "Global Groove" playing among an Eden of potted plants.
Paik has also spawned an entire hilarious family of single-channel video sculptures called "Family of Robot." Each member of the family is composed of vintage TV cabinets -- with video monitors set in displaying images appropriate to the age and gender of the member depicted -- which form TV people with arms, legs, torsos and heads. Sadly, only the grandparents and "Hi-Tech Baby" made it to the show.
When I stopped by "The Worlds of Nam June Paik," laughing visitors filled the ramps and galleries. Not surprisingly, children seemed particularly taken with Paik's whimsical creations. Today, because words like "experimental" and "avant-garde" are so frequently applied to work that is sullen, whiny, angry and self-important, an artist who gives experimentalism a good name delights us all.