Biomorphic, Electric, Robotic: Nam June Paik at Asia Society

“The real issue is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electric medium.” – Nam June Paik, 1964

The staircase at the Asia Society Museum leads to an enlarged, transparent image of Nam June Paik sitting between two illuminated globes, contemplatively with chin in hand, wearing miniature televisions inset in a pair of eyeglasses. The image exemplifies the artist’s prescient thinking and his futuristic worldview wherein today’s technological advancements could exist. It is a fitting introduction to Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot (through January 4, 2015), the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in New York in over a decade. The exhibition, designed by Clayton Vogel and curated by Michelle Yun, is an effort to broaden the understanding of Paik’s practice beyond his legacy as the originator of video art in the 1960s, and to situate his use of technology as a medium within the wider framework of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century art.

Paik, born in Seoul in 1932, studied music and aesthetics at Tokyo University and went on to continue his musical studies in Germany, where he met visiting composer John Cage, who largely inspired Paik’s experimentation in avant-garde music and art. Moving to New York in 1964, Paik began working mainly on music-based live performances until his experimentation with televisions catalyzed the shift in his practice to object-based work.

Robot K-456, 1964. Twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminum profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. 72 x 40 x 28 in. (183 x 103 x 72 cm). Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1792.01. Photo: Roman März, Berlin.
Robot K-456, 1964. Twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminum profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. 72 x 40 x 28 in. (183 x 103 x 72 cm). Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1792.01. Photo: Roman März, Berlin.

The exhibition at the Asia Society spans the entirety of the museum’s two floors. Moving thematically through Paik’s oeuvre, the show begins with a section dedicated to Robot K-456, a twenty-channel radio-controlled robot created in 1964 and crafted with aluminum, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. Based in human proportions, the biomorphic assemblage was programmed to walk and talk and was the subject of numerous performance-based projects. Presented on a simple screen set into the gallery wall (which successfully differentiates it from Paik’s own TV-based works) is a news account of First Accident of the Twenty-First Century, which was performed in 1982 on the occasion of the artist’s major exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The choreographed piece subjects the robot to a car accident while crossing Madison Avenue at 75th Street. As the robot falls to the ground in the footage, the beholder hears distressed shouts, proving that Paik has created a subject biomorphically familiar enough as to incite empathetic reactions. At a time when technology was advancing into a more pervasive component of daily life, humanizing the medium was Paik’s attempt at making it more approachable. The work’s reception in television media muddied the line between art and popular culture, and the piece itself reiterates Paik’s intention of manifesting the human condition through the mediums of science and technology.

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