Site icon ReinventIngrid

Nam June Paik – Us and Our Screens

Do you remember when the first iPhone came out? The year was 2007 – 10 years ago.

I had to look it up because, honestly, life before smartphone technology taking over our world and time = life before children for me. I like to think my kids absorb my time and I use technology to get some back. So why do I cringe when the mighty iPad is sucking my kids’ eyes as soon as all non-negotiable activities are done?

If you’re reading this, you know I use Art as a conduit to better understand and appreciate what life brings. With my recent studies taking me out of my comfort zone to learn about Indian Art and the vastness of its religions, revisiting Nam June Paik and his prescience about time, media and technology is a treat I’d like to share with you.

Born in Seoul, Nam June Paik and associated with the “anti-art” Fluxus movement, he started using TV as a medium in 1963. As such, he is often referred as the “father” of video art.


Early on in 1963, Zen for TV already alludes to the many social threads Nam June Paik will keep unraveling.

Nam June Paik, Zen for TV (1963), MOMA. Photo Credit via Instagram @work2day

Tipped on its side, a TV monitor has become a sculptural object but its content of a straight and now vertical line points to the end of the program and of life itself. Indeed, I can’t help but think of the terminal beeping line on an hospital monitor.

Now, I may show my age but when I was a child in France, I remember seeing this when programs actually stopped.

TV was not always a constant and never ending feedback loop. So you had to find something else to do. Take a break, stretch your legs in a garden.

Nam June Paik, TV Garden, (1974). Video installation with color TV sets and live plants. Photo via The Red List.

Nowadays, kids would probably wish for Paik’s TV Garden (1974) before anything else. How could Nam June Paik in 1974 see so clearly into 2017?

Believe it or not, TV used to be a way to get information, to learn while also providing relaxation or a “temporary escape¹”. Nowadays, when in too many US households a TV can be found in every single room, do people actually watch any of what these screens broadcast? Or has TV’s ugliness become invisible to numbed viewers, so passive they’re almost unresponsive? Is there actually anything to watch on those screens?

Between adults bingeing on reality TV and children becoming addicted to their screens, I think we can all learn a little something from Nam June Paik’s artworks such as TV Buddha which in 1976 could not have been more spot on to what the future held.

Nam June Paik, TV Buddha (1976). Photo Credit via Instagram @RituelWerk

In this work, a seated Buddha is being filmed, its image looping on a TV monitor watched by the statue. Is it meditation? Contemplation? Self-absorption?

Or not seeing anymore? Like the information overload we are all subjected to and which again Nam June Paik artistically described with his Electronic Superhighway from 1995.

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Remember, this was when the Internet was still in its infancy in 1995 yet already, each US state feeds its preferred content on TV², all linked in garish neon lights.

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, at Smithsonian American Art Institute.

It makes you feel the multitude of connections without being able to concentrate on anything at all. Sounds familiar?

Being able to find concentration again – for our sake and our children’s – is what Nam June Paik expresses best with Something Pacific (1986), an outdoor installation on UCSD campus and part of the Stuart Collection I much love.

Nam June Paik, 3 sets of outdoor sculptures part of Something Pacific (1986), Stuart Collection on UCSD campus.

It’s almost easy to miss these relatively small sculptures placed near the entrance for the Media and Communication building on UCSD campus. Yet, they pack a punch when you see them.

And hopefully they will help students never forgetting that Media as a field of study is so ephemeral in form that content must remain their primary focus.

Nam June Paik, 2 sets of outdoor sculptures part of Something Pacific (1986), Stuart Collection on UCSD campus.

A Rodin Thinker perched on a Sony Watchman…Do you even remember these portable TVs first launched in 1982?

Nam June Paik, part of Something Pacific (1986), Stuart Collection on UCSD campus.

Why does the electronic device actually look more ancient or passé than the Thinker whose first outing to the art world was dated 1904? Is it because we forget electronics never truly hold any content? Or that the content it ever holds is of dubious quality?

What about Buddha sculptures deeply looking into old emptied out TVs or ancient computers? Looking at nothing, a blank screen or is it a dead screen? It could be on or off, it makes no difference to this tense meditation between two opposites.

Nam June Paik, part of Something Pacific (1986), Stuart Collection on UCSD campus.

Again, there is a sense of permanence emanating from the bronze sculptures arching back to Eastern philosophies that have endured throughout thousands of years to reach us. But what about the more familiar technology brought by our Western world? It’s showing its age, looking almost pathetic!

Nam June Paik, part of Something Pacific (1986), Stuart Collection on UCSD campus.

Maybe such technology would have looked modern back in 1986 but today, it looks obsolete and straight out of a junkyard. Both as objects and the content they are supposed to hold and transmit. Again, I would argue this very much applies to these vintage TV monitors as well as the TVs and screens in our own homes.

The contrast highlighted by Nam June Paik has only been reinforced with time elapsed. The technology which seems to rule our and our children’s world does not and will not hold any ground for appreciation or knowledge when faced with the patina of time and tradition.

But what is the solution when TV, smartphones and apps are all the rage? How is it possible to come back to our senses?

Nam June Paik, Sense Amplifier, Inhibit Driver, 1967. Currently at Expo Medusa at Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (jewelry blog post here)

I love jewelry but I can’t see myself wearing Paik’s Sense Amplifier – Inhibit Driver necklace!

So I am trying something new, whenever my son asks me for the iPad. He can have it AFTER we meditate 5-10 minutes together…using a meditation app on my smartphone! Aaaargh!

How do you navigate this in your life? Do you have any tips to share in the Comment Box?


Something Pacific (1986) is part of the Stuart Collection on UCSD campus and is located at the Media and Communication buildings.

I have written many other articles on other artworks in the Stuart Collection, including Do Ho Suh and Robert Irwin.

¹Sculpture Magazine article, June 2001, Carla Hanzal.



© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Exit mobile version