Video artist Nam June Paik’s work is well-represented across Washington’s public art collections. His oversized “Electronic Superhighway” (1995-1996) — hundreds of television sets playing video clips that represent different parts of the country, overlaid with a neon outline of the United States— has long been a fixture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And in 2011, the National Gallery of Art held an intimate show of Paik’s previously unseen works on paper and several of his multimedia pieces, including “One Candle, Candle Projection” (1988-2000), a live video feed of a melting candle.
The American Art Museum’s new “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” retrospective brings more intriguing installations to the fore. The exhibit showcases works primarily from the Nam June Paik Archive, which the museum acquired from Paik’s estate in 2009. (The Korean-born artist died in 2006.) Among the works is an eye-catching “archive wall” featuring a hodgepodge of art materials, technological apparatuses and inspirational objects (toys! TVs! birdcages!) that Paik collected over his lifetime.
It’s a peek into the artist’s “creative process,” says curator John Hanhardt, who knew Paik personally. “It gives us insight into how he worked.”
This cardboard outline of the state of Louisiana was used as a template for part of “Electronic Superhighway” (1995-1996). Also on the shelf: A small bar of wood that reads “Kansas: Wizard of Oz,” referring to the film Paik chose to represent that state.
Paik was famous for both collecting and creating robots. He built some human-like forms from TV sets of various sizes, shapes and models, including the ones on this wall. “He was a person who was always joking, very playful,” Hanhardt says. “He never took himself or anything too seriously because he always wanted to change your expectations.”
Paik collected toys (often from thrift or antiques shops) that were related to the concept of transportation, such as the bicycle and car models displayed here. The notion of mobilization and 20th-century advances made in transportation fascinated him, Hanhardt says. Paik, who lived in a number of cities around the world throughout his life, moved to New York in 1964, just nine years after the interstate highway system was completed.
Representations of this spiritual figure appear frequently in Paik’s work. The Buddha features in “Global Visionary” in pieces such as 1982’s “Whitney Buddha Complex: Stone Buddha,” in which a statue of a Buddha ponders his own image on the closed-circuit TV monitor he’s facing. Paik was interested in the Buddha’s form and collected Buddha figurines from shops around the world.
To host “Global Visionary,” the American Art Museum brought in more than a typical curatorial team; Smithsonian horticultural experts must water the more than 300 plants in Paik’s installation “TV Garden” (1974/2000), on loan from New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The work, consisting of living biological matter arranged around 65 cathode ray tube TV sets (all simultaneously screening Paik’s 1973 “Global Groove” film), is arranged on the floor in the center of the show’s main exhibition room. The work touches on Paik’s favorite themes: the global spread of television and the process of combining organic life with technology.
Curator John Hanhardt will present a free discussion of Paik’s work at 7 p.m. Friday at the American Art Museum’s McEvoy Auditorium, 8th and F streets NW; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)