Nam June Paik at SFMOMA

Nam June Paik: A Dazzle for the Eye and Heart

SFMOMA, San Francisco
through october 3, 2021

Written by Genie Davis
What do you think of when you hear the words, “cutting edge art?” Chances are Nam June Paik might just come to mind. Or perhaps it will after you view the exuberant links between his art, technology and performance on display in a dazzling retrospective at SFMOMA in San Francisco through October 3rd.

The artist engagingly binds threads of Buddhist philosophy with a love of music and a passion for video art. His work is both experimental and conceptual; if not ahead of its time, it was certainly born of the time it was created and transcends it with a sense of the revolutionary today.

One of my favorite pieces in the exhibition was his 1993 work “Sistine Chapel,” a room-filling, serene yet surreal series of projected images. Fish and men swim together, and recognizable performers from David Bowie to Lou Reed flash past in a vivid colorful swirl that can only be described as reverential and wonderful. The projectors themselves are angled in a sculpture of technological art on metal bars resembling a jungle gym. The Venice Biennale-winning installation uses 40 such projectors, creating visual images that make the viewer’s head turn, and thoughts spin, too. There is a sense of the kaleidoscopic and the other-worldly about it.

Another favorite of mine is the gallery space devoted to “TV Garden,” in which television screens grow like strange flowers amid clusters of lush green shrubbery, living plants growing a video feed, a synchronized cacophony of music and interviews and dance at play in a darkened room.

Naturally there are a wide range of diverse highlights in the inclusive exhibition. It opens with a large video projection of Paik’s 1961 “Hand and Face” in which he is essentially playing a kinetic game of peek-a-boo with viewers. In a sense, much of Paik’s work shares this sense of child-like fascination, it is a game, a transition, a visual feast of motion and sound.

His 1974 “TV Buddha” offers a similar playfulness, in which the spirituality of Buddhism and the Buddhist sense of contemplation is expressed through a television camera filming an antique statue of Buddha which is in turn viewing itself on the opposite screen. It is like a pure visualization of the term “navel gazing” combined with technology, combined with the celestial joke of who we are, and what we see when we look at ourselves – even if we are a depiction of the holy, a mirror within a mirror, within a mirror.

Also an experimental musician, a number of Paik’s work here riffs on these “notes,” such as “TV Bra for Living Sculpture;” “Human Cello,” with its hum of sexual connection; and “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television.” That latter work shocks a bit, as we watch an overturned piano chopped up with an ax in a collaborative work with Joseph Beuys. While it’s somewhat hard to take the destruction of an instrument, it’s also both mesmerizing and strange, addictive to watch. Honestly, so is much of the exhibition –unnerving, and captivating.

Paik also collaborated with Merce Cunningham, which with his obvious love of motion and energy seems like a pairing that was meant to be. The video assemblage “Merce/Digital” from 1988 expresses elements of that collaboration, here offering revealing videos of Cunningham in a whirl of dance motion.

Motion for Paik seems to be something akin to spirituality, which is bound to the human body, which is bound to nothing but light, sound, vision, magic, music, and the vibrations that music create, and which in turn inspire motion. It is that sense of the cyclical, that devotion to both spirit and flesh, to the luminous worship of electronic light, the religious grail of television images – or today, perhaps, of images viewed on the internet – images that both connect and alienate us, that soothe and perturb, that fill us with awe and color and movement and an aching sense of yearning for something more.

It is that “something more” that Paik provides, even as he helped to mold our current world and our wonder and addiction to the electronic heavens.

Take that “wanna get away” flight up to San Francisco and see for yourself.

Nam June Paik: A Retrospective

At SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco

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