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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Rodin Thinker perched on a Sony Watchman…Do you even remember these portable TVs first launched in 1982?
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.
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!
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?
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.
Ingrid dear, I so much appreciate the fantastic emails you send with so intelligent and wise knowledge of yours. LOve the way you write and share Art.
With great admiration !
Thank you, dear Becky!! I am so pleased you and others like the blog so much…You give me wings to write more and more! 😘😘
Slave of screens…what did people without in the other centuries?I hate when my TV is on and nobody in front of…I hate zapping…I know what I would like to watch…but I know I become addict to my phone..Nobody is perfect! Technology is useful with moderation like all things.
Agreed, phones seem to have surpassed TV in terms of addictive power and I feel it too. Being aware is important but it’s almost as if the blurring effect between leisure and work that smartphones brought makes it a much more threatening and addictive technology.
The television is on in all rooms and all day without anyone really looking at it !! this demonstrates self-absorption !! the solitude of the tele-viewer …. who became a “geek” !!
If there is no selection, it has a profoundly negative influence on intellectual development, academic achievement, language, attention, imagination, creativity, violence, sleep, smoking, alcoholism, sexuality, body image, eating behavior, obesity and life expectancy etc.
What a negative picture, is not it !!!!.
It is a permanent daily brainwashing … more individuality, a lobotomy, the same look at the events … and we come to the “pensée unique” !!!
A television, a smartphone, an Ipad in nature : the children will see them immediately …. the statue of Rodin or Boudha will not interest them !!
Everything is made so that we are big consumers of technology … It has become impossible to dose the use of these objects that modern life has made indispensable!
When my two boys were small, I often said to them: “Be actors in your life and not watching the lives of others” !!!!!
Today how to live without Iphone, Ipad, TV?
Eh eh !! Become a “Ermite” ??? impossible we would not know how to live nature ….. we would need a search browser …
Thank you for sharing your view. And what an amazing advice you gave to your boys. That’s definitely a tip I will remember 😉
Dear Ingrid, I haven’t found yet a way to detach my boys from their electronic devices, but the photo of the Thinker staring pointlessly to an old non-functioning Sony Watchman is priceless. I will show it to the boys and tell them that this is what they look like when they stare at the screen!!
And more to the point, their iPad will look as obsolete and old-fashioned one day soon… whereas the art you show them at museums will endure! 😂
Thank you for reading, dear Lorenza.
thank you for this super overview & thoughts, i will reread later in closer detail. great finding yr blog!
Delighted that you like it! Thank you for reading.
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Thank you Ingrid. I instantly relate to these buddhas in front of the tv‘s. Fine works to reflect on. And yes, I make much of my art on iphone….
Thank you for reading and sharing your artistic position on such a fascinating theme. Your use of technology such as the iphone to make art is wonderful as you are basically harnessing its power and reach to make the art, instead of succumbing to its numbing effects. I really like that! The artist wins🙌