Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art

Using concepts inspired by Dada artists, avant-garde musicians, and communication philosophy, Nam June Paik turned his attention to television and video, creating works that questioned the onesidedness of broadcasting.

Summary of Event

On March 11, 1963, Nam June Paik opened his first one-man exhibition, entitled “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” Exposition of Music-Electronic Television (exhibition)[Exposition of Music Electronic Television] at the Galerie Parnass Galerie Parnass , a three-storied space in Wuppertal, Germany. He exhibited three different collections of work: Objects Sonores, Objects Sonores (Paik) four “prepared” and decorated pianos; Instruments for Zen Exercises, Instruments for Zen Exercises (Paik) a combination of found objects that could make noise; and Electronic Televisions, Electronic Televisions (Paik) thirteen manipulated or broken television sets that altered broadcasted images. After this exhibition, Paik devoted more of his creative energy to demystifying and deconstructing the medium of television, removing it from its role as bland entertainer. In the process, he sought to change viewers’ perceptions of their role in the transmission/reception process. It is important to note that although he is a major visual artist, Paik was trained as a performing musician and composer, gaining considerable recognition for this work. Many of his concerns in the visual arts are influenced by his musical performance experiences and ideas of the radical Fluxus art movement of the 1960’s. Television;as art[art]
Video art
Performance art
Music;avant-garde[avant garde]
[kw]Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art (Mar. 11-20, 1963)
[kw]Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art, Nam June (Mar. 11-20, 1963)
[kw]Video and Television as Art, Nam June Paik Exhibits (Mar. 11-20, 1963)
[kw]Television as Art, Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and (Mar. 11-20, 1963)
[kw]Art, Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as (Mar. 11-20, 1963)
Television;as art[art]
Video art
Performance art
Music;avant-garde[avant garde]
[g]Europe;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
[g]West Germany;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
[g]Germany;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
[c]Radio and television;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
[c]Arts;Mar. 11-20, 1963: Nam June Paik Exhibits Video and Television as Art[07550]
Paik, Nam June
Cage, John
Maciunas, George
Moorman, Charlotte

Nam June Paik was born in Seoul, Korea, where he studied piano and composition. He and his family were forced to move to Japan during the Korean War. While in Japan, he enrolled in the University of Tokyo to study twentieth century music, including electronic techniques. He was graduated in 1956 with a degree in aesthetics, having written his thesis on the influential twentieth century German composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose atonal and twelve-tone techniques replaced traditional concepts of harmony and tonality. In the 1950’s, Germany was the center for electronic and avant-garde music, and Paik was drawn to that country to continue his studies at the University of Munich and at the Freiburg Conservatory, where he focused on art history and philosophy in addition to music.

In 1958, Paik enrolled in the International Summer Course for New Music International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany. There he met the famous American musician John Cage, who was to become a major influence on Paik’s life and art. Cage had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg in the 1930’s, and he continued Schoenberg’s innovations by confronting established musical traditions. In addition, Cage was an acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp Duchamp, Marcel , the famous French artist and Dadaist Dada philosopher. Duchamp proved to be an inspiration to many artists of the 1950’s and 1960’s, acting as a link for them with prior artistic thoughts. Cage also was influenced by Japanese Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki Suzuki, Daisetz T. , who lectured at Columbia University from 1949 to 1951. Cage combined Duchamp’s philosophies of the “readymade” and concern with technology with the Zen Buddhist’s philosophy of the importance of truly living in the now, attempting to apply these ideas to music.

Cage is credited with many innovations and experiments in modern music. For example, in 1938, early in his career, Cage dared to insert various objects between or on top of the strings of a piano. His “prepared piano” created sounds different from those that could be made by the instrument alone. Cage continued to stretch and explore the possibility of music. In some of his compositions, he included the noises of everyday life. Noting that audiences often were bored during a concert, having little to see and nothing to do, Cage also developed the idea of musical indeterminacy, in which the elements of the musical composition are left undecided by the composer and are chosen instead by the musician who performs it, thus imbuing musical performance with the unexpected quality of theater. He also is credited with having developed the first “happening,” or multimedia audience participatory event, in 1952 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

These ideas inspired George Maciunas to become leader of the Fluxus group Fluxus group , which continued Dadaist traditions by writing manifestos, publishing journals, and encouraging artists to perform as ways to challenge the current forms of high culture. This loosely knit international group of artists, writers, composers, filmmakers, and performers had enormous effects on the development of visual and performance art.

In the fall of 1958, Germany held its first show of Dadaist work since such art had been banned by Adolf Hitler. Paik was able to study work by Marcel Duchamp at first hand. He also was impressed with ideas of artist Kurt Schwitters Schwitters, Kurt , who included nontraditional materials in his collages in an attempt to fuse art and life. That fusion was an important part of Cage’s ideas as well. Schwitters developed the concept of “Merz,” which meant an art that was free from all constraints and bonds, and then took this one step further by developing the idea of “total theater,” which he called “Merzbuhne.” These ideas meshed closely with ideas of John Cage and the Fluxus artists. Inspired by all these ideas, Paik began to investigate the techniques of collage, action performance, and ideas of Zen in his own electronic work.

After the summer institute, Paik studied at the University of Cologne, where he did experimental work in the Studio for Electronic Music of Radio Cologne Radio Cologne . While working at the radio station, he came in contact with people working in television. As he became more adept at electronics, he started to see the relationship his work in electronic music might have with the medium of television. Paik wrote to Cage about his artistic interest in the use of television as early as 1959. He began to perform his compositions, acquiring a reputation with what he called his “action music” at the Galerie 22 Galerie 22[Galerie Twenty two] in Düsseldorf and at Mary Bauermeister’s Bauermeister, Mary Atelier Atelier (art gallery) in Cologne, an important outlet for young composers. His original intent was to perform actions that would complement his collaged musical creations of live and taped sounds, but early on, his music took a back seat as his actions demanded more and more attention.

In Hommage à John Cage, Hommage à John Cage (Paik) Paik cut the strings of a piano and later pushed the instrument over on its side. In the Cologne performance of this piece, Paik included a motorcycle engine as one of his instruments. He left the scene without leaving instructions to have anyone turn the engine off. The space where the audience still watched and waited filled with carbon monoxide gas. This added an element of fear and physical danger to music, a notion that appealed to the critics of the time. In his piece entitled Etude for Pianoforte, Etude for Pianoforte (Paik) Paik ran into the audience with a large pair of scissors and cut off part of Cage’s shirt and tie. Paik continued the performance by lathering Cage’s hair with shampoo, eventually running out of the performance area and telephoning back to let the audience know that the piece was ended—making him perhaps the first person to use the telephone as an artistic medium.

Some of the inspiration for these performances came from ideas of Zen Buddhism, part of the Korean culture and Paik’s heritage even if not his religion. In Zen, it is not uncommon for a master to act in a bizarre manner in order to shock the senses of his students, forcing them to arrive at some awareness. No one could be certain of what Paik would do next—perhaps not even Paik. There was no way of writing notation for his kind of “music,” and he had at one time considered the use of video to record his performances, eventually using these tapes as a musical “score.” He ultimately rejected this plan in fear that his pieces would be reproduced mechanically. The variability and uncertainty was what made the performances intense. Paik had incorporated and made his own the Fluxus idea that the artist’s job was to oppose accepted norms in order to come up with the unexpected.

George Maciunas invited Paik to perform at Fluxus events and to write for Fluxus publications in the early 1960’s. In his piece “One for Violin Solo,” Paik destroyed a violin by smashing it to pieces on a table. This destruction was more violent than original Fluxus philosophy yet fit in with the Fluxus ideas of destroying the boundaries between the artwork and its viewers. In Sonata Quasi una Fantasia, Sonata Quasi una Fantasia (Paik) Paik played parts of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while stripping off pieces of his clothing. More and more he became aware of sex, or lack of sex, in modern music, and he wanted to investigate that idea.

Paik wrote descriptions of work, or “scores,” for his pieces such as Young Penis Symphony, Young Penis Symphony (Paik) in which young men would stick their penises out through holes cut into large sheets of white paper. In Chronicle of a Beautiful Paintress, Chronicle of a Beautiful Paintress (Paik) he advised staining flags of different countries with menstrual blood and exhibiting them in a “beautiful gallery.” These scores, or ideas for performances or artwork, were among the first conceptual Conceptual art pieces. The shocking themes of sex and destruction, combined with audience participation, were recurring ones in the artist’s work.

While Paik performed his compositions and wrote for Fluxus publications, he also began creating a series of sculptures or assemblages of found objects that would eventually lead to his one-person showing in the Galerie Parnass. Inspired by German painter Karl Otto Goetz Goetz, Karl Otto and his idea of creating abstract images on a television screen, Paik became more interested in electronics and in television. He rented a small studio and worked with hired engineers to alter thirteen old television sets. Electronically, Paik was able to stretch the horizontal and to turn the picture into its negative, turning black to white and white to black. He also had engineers create an interactive device with which viewers could manipulate the broadcasted image by moving a dial, making the viewing of television an active rather than passive occupation.

In one case, Paik discovered that the television was broken, so that the only image to appear was a horizontal line. The artist turned this set on its side, making the horizontal line into a vertical one. By this action, he showed total disregard for the sanctity of a machine that, since the 1930’s and especially during the 1950’s, had alarmingly invaded households worldwide. Paik was the first person to recognize the potential of television as an art form and was the first artist actually to transform the electronic mechanisms of the television set to enhance or distort the viewed pictures.


Although his television sets did not make a large impression on art critics at the time, Paik realized the importance of what he had done. Cage also realized that someone would be bound to turn television into art. Paik shared that belief but did not think initially that he would be that person. After the exhibition, however, he wrote that “by no previous work was I so happy working as in these TV experiments.” Soon after this time, he left Germany for Japan so that he could work with color television, which was not then available in Europe. He began a collaboration with Shuya Abe Abe, Shuya , an electronics engineer who helped Paik realize many of his ideas, including his family of robots series and his video synthesizer for color television. Paik had the idea that video would be the new technological painting of the future and that whichever artist owned the first videotape recorder would become the best painter of his times.

Paik and his working robot, K-456, visited New York City to participate in Fluxus events. Maciunas had returned from Europe in 1964 and was encouraging artists of the Fluxus group to occupy loft spaces in the SoHo area of Manhattan, making this area an exciting one for the new avant-garde. Maciunas convinced fellow Lithuanian Jonas Mekas Mekas, Jonas to move his Filmmakers’ Cinematheque Filmmakers’ Cinematheque[Filmmakers Cinematheque] to the basement of his loft, adding the energy of the underground filmmakers to the avant-garde movement. Some of those to experiment with film would also become video artists themselves. SoHo was located near Canal Street, where electronic parts and gadgets were placed in bins on the open sidewalk to be sold cheaply to passersby. Paik found himself to be in the right place at the right time, and what was planned as a temporary visit turned out to be a permanent living arrangement for him.

Paik continued his exploration of avant-garde performance, collaborating with cellist and avant-garde interpreter Charlotte Moorman in an effort to add sex, in the form of nudity, to music. In this, they were rebelling against the conservative dress of the classical musician. Paik was an active participant in the New York avant-garde festivals Moorman organized. Her performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique
Opera Sextronique (Paik) at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque gained them much notoriety by landing them in jail with an arrest for indecent exposure. Their defense ultimately contributed to a change in New York State law, allowing nudity for artistic or performance purposes.

Paik increasingly turned to television and video as his means of expression. In 1965, he held his first exhibition in the United States at the New School for Social Research New School for Social Research , to which Cage had connections. Here, Paik exhibited the completed experiments he and Abe had worked on in Japan, interrupting normal broadcast images by means of feedback signals from an audiotape recorder. He also had powerful magnets available to allow viewers themselves to distort the television images.

That same year, Paik bought one of the first commercially available Sony video recording systems, becoming the first artist to exhibit work created on videotape. In a cab on the way home from picking up this equipment, he was stuck in traffic caused by Pope Paul’s visit. Paik taped the traffic jam and exhibited this work that same evening at SoHo’s Cafe à Go Go for the Fluxus-sponsored “Monday Night Letters” series. It was here that he made his bold prediction that “someday artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semi-conductors as they work today with brushes, violins, and junk.”

His career moved quickly from this point in time. Mary Baumeister, an acquaintance from Cologne, introduced him to Fernanda Bonino, who gave him a series of exhibitions in her Galeria Bonino in New York. There he exhibited his “Demagnetizer,” a circular electromagnet that created abstract patterns on the television screen, and what he called his “dancing pattern,” created by feeding audio signals into color television sets. At his second show in the Galeria Bonino, Paik exhibited his video installation, TV Cross, TV Cross (Paik) for the first time in the United States. This piece consisted of eight television sets mounted in the shape of a cross. He was recognized as being an important artist and was invited to produce work for shows at the Wise Gallery in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, becoming identified as the founder of the emerging field of video art. He received various grants and became artist-in-residence at the State University of New York at Story Brook. He also was resident artist at public television station WGBH in Boston (where his videotapes were the first ones produced by an artist ever to be broadcast) and then at WNET in New York City, where he produced the live four-hour broadcast Video Commune. Video Commune (television program)

Paik had a love/hate relationship with the television set reminiscent of his relationship with the piano and the violin. His innovations in the use of the medium set him apart from other underground video artists, who often used the standard video format to explore unconventional themes. Aside from creating videotapes, he uses the television set itself as a sculptural material, making a bra, a pair of glasses, a penis, a bed, a cello, and numerous other images out of television sets. In these works, his videotaped images become a part, but not all, of his total video installation. He has decorated or gutted the television set and replaced the electronic insides with a fish bowl and with a candle. He has placed the machine on the ceiling for his piece Fish Flies on Sky, Fish Flies on Sky (Paik) among plants for his work TV Garden, TV Garden (Paik) and face up on the floor for his work TV Sea. TV Sea (Paik) Just as he was disturbed by the passivity of the concertgoer, he was equally disturbed by the passivity of the television viewer, declaring that “TV has attacked us all our lives; now we’re hitting back!” He became determined to free and make accessible this commercial and very inaccessible medium of bland, narrative communication. Paik continued to assault television and its viewers, inserting the hand of the artist to break the illusion that television projects. In his broadcast piece Electronic Opera No. 1, Electronic Opera No. 1 (television program)[Electronic Opera Number 1] he instructed viewers first to close one eye, then to close both eyes, and eventually to turn the television set off.

Paik also loved the medium, acknowledging that no one once taped could ever truly die. He envisioned his synthesizer, a special-effects generator created with Abe, being adapted for home use, allowing viewers to alter their television images at will, turning a colored television set into an electronic canvas with which viewers could become active creators of art. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the “global village,” Paik dreamed of a “global art” based on television technology. He created his interactive piece Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (television program) which was broadcast by satellite to an estimated twenty-five million people on January 1, 1984, the year in which George Orwell set his famous book about a terrifying future in which media are invasive and the populace is helplessly at their mercy. Paik continually showed that technology was not so holy that it could not be mocked and, ultimately, tamed. Paik’s work was honored with a Guggenheim Museum exhibition in the year 2000 entitled “The Worlds of Nam June Paik.” Worlds of Nam June Paik, The (exhibition)
Television;as art[art]
Video art
Performance art
Music;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading

  • Hanhardt, John G. Nam June Paik. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982. Issued in connection with a show at the Whitney Museum. A collection of essays on the artist’s work from the perspective of museum personnel, who must first investigate their own reactions as they confront the Fluxus artist. There is heavy reporting on objects and performances but also some interesting information on what led to the creation of particular works.
  • Hayward Gallery. Nam June Paik: Video Works, 1963-1988. London: Author, 1988. Catalog of Paik’s show. Short but concise, giving the history of the artist as leading to the development of his work. Text is accompanied by photographs from videos, of video sculptures, and of video installations as well as of his performances with Charlotte Moorman.
  • Kang, Taehi. “Nam June Paik: Early Years, 1958-1973.” Gainesville: Florida State University School of Visual Arts, 1988. This Ph.D. dissertation is the most comprehensive investigation of the artist and his work.

  • Nam June Paik: Global Groove. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2004. This catalog accompanying an exhibition at the Guggenheim includes essays by the artist, as well as by John G. Hanhardt, Caitlin Jones and Anja Osswald. Bibliographic references.
  • Paik, Nam June. Art for Twenty-five Million People: Bon jour, Monsieur Orwell. Berlin: Daadgalerie, 1984. An anthology of information concerning Paik’s satellite-transmitted piece of the same name. This live, interactive program was produced by WNET in New York and by FR3 in Paris and simultaneously broadcast via satellite on January 1, 1984, to an estimated twenty-five million viewers. Not all the text is in English.
  • Rosebush, Judson, ed. Nam June Paik: Video ’n’ Videology, 1959-1973. Syracuse, N.Y.: Everson Museum of Art, 1974. A scrapbook of articles, essays, reviews, letters and other documents describing the artist’s work and ideas, with Paik’s own notes and explanations written in the margins.

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