Heralded transnationally as the ‘Father of Video Art’, Paik was the first artist in the world to both embrace and critically respond to the new and overwhelming phenomenon of technology in the 1960s. Born in Korea in 1932, he was originally a student of music pursuing advanced studies in Germany under renowned musical composers. After meeting John Cage in 1958, and through him Marcel Duchamp as well as the avant-garde Fluxus network, Paik embarked on the unlikely transition from composer to performance artist and ultimately inventor of a radical new art form. Paik’s first solo exhibition, entitled Exposition of Music – Electronic Television in Wuppertal, Germany in 1963, engaged critically with the material site of television that had newly become a permanent fixture in households. The period was an epoch where lives were being revolutionised – permeated by both electronics and media through the emerging technology of the television set. Inspired by a mix of utopian and dystopian ideals of the modern age combined with sheer humour and wit, Paik seized each new technological development – from the radio to the television to digital editing systems – and subverted them into radical new forms; thereby creating thought-provoking and ground-breaking works that re-established a unique perception of the meaning of art in the electronic age.
Paik eventually settled in the United States in 1964 and played a pivotal role in the flourishing Fluxus movement. With a pioneering, genre-defying oeuvre that amalgamated science, engineering and fine art, Paik’s visionary creations simultaneously celebrated and destabilized technology. In 1964, in collaboration with electronics engineer and physicist Shuya Abe, Paik created his very first robot – the 20-channel radio-controlled Robot K-456, named after the Mozart piano concerto. During Paik’s mid-career Whitney retrospective in 1982, he set the robot loose, letting the life-size metal anthropomorphic robot amble down Madison Avenue in New York City. K-456 attracted amused stares for his funky wired and panelled exterior as well as his lumbering, ungainly movements; at one point hit by a car, K-456 continued, undeterred, in its signature crippled stroll, broadcasting a recording of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and defecating dried white beans. Being the first of Paik’s iconic and widely coveted robot sculptures, K-456 became quite the unlikely celebrity in the contemporary art scene, performing first in private spaces and then on the streets as part of the Second Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival.
While K-456 was unabashedly handmade, featuring deliberately exposed cables and electronic innards, the ensuing Family of Robot series from the 1980s was polished and family-friendly – featuring quaint vintage televisions and radios. The effect of cobbling vintage television sets together is one that induces nostalgia and affection as well as a feeling of child’s play, evoking the comical clunkyness of old Hollywood robots while reminding viewers of the earliest days of broadcast television. Meanwhile, Paik’s manipulation of broadcast imagery, footage and recordings in the incessantly looping videos culminate in a spirited yet astutely critical commentary on the advent of television and its ubiquity in contemporary culture. Lovingly named after different members of a family unit, these robot sculptures incorporate Paik’s affinity for family, grounding his futuristic inventions in a profound tender humanity. As Ken Hakuta, Paik’s nephew and executor, observes: “I don’t really think of Nam June as a technologist. […] He wanted to redefine television [not as a] passive object, but [as] an object that we interact with. We control our destiny. He was a humanist; he wanted to humanize everything”. Experimental throughout his career, Paik developed over his life a mind-bendingly vast array of sculptures, installations, performances, ‘post-video’ satellite broadcasts and laser projections that reshaped our perceptions and constituted immeasurable influence on artists of the late-twentieth century. Regardless of medium and method, Paik never lost his sense of wonder and sense of childlike innocence and curiosity as epitomised in Family Robot: High-Tech Baby – an icon of technology and artificial intelligence, a medium for cultural and philosophical reflection, and ultimately, an endearing and playful subject of love and affection.
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