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ART : This Guy Does Wonders With TVs : Nam June Paik is a cultural terrorist, a high-tech guru and a funny guy to boot. He also happens to be the godfather of video art

May 09, 1993|JOHN HOWELL | John Howell is a free-lance writer based in New York.

NEW YORK — Nam June Paik is late, very late, for an afternoon lunch meeting. So late that his assistant leaves the SoHo restaurant to see if the artist is still at his studio just around the corner.

"It's pretty early for him," the assistant says apologetically on his way out. "He works all night. But he should be up for his breakfast by now."

After a week of postponed appointments, the odds are still good that he will show. Paik, a fixture on the international avant-garde art scene for more than 30 years, is known to be elusive, but he is hardly publicity shy. As a pioneering performance and video artist, he has encouraged--and gotten--all the publicity he could muster to promote his costly and financially unrewarding work.

("For a long, long time, I didn't sell anything," he says later. "I owe my entire career to having gone to two of the right parties in the '60s. I met important people who gave me money. First time in years I make living as an artist. My advice to all young artists: Go to the right parties and master an important skill--how to talk about money with rich people while loud rock 'n' roll plays. Very difficult!")

Paik's stature on the art status scale is about to take another quantum leap. In a typically Paikian twist of colliding nationalities, the artist, a Korean native who is now a naturalized American citizen, will be the official representative for Germany at the prestigious Venice Biennale, the Italian showcase for international art opening June 10.

His visibility in Southern California is about to rise to new heights: A video sculpture recently went on permanent view in the lobby at the Korean Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, another is to be installed next month at the new Anaheim Arena, and he has a solo show opening Friday at Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Paik finally arrives, a short, stout man swathed in layers of shirts, sweaters and heavy jackets, even though it's a warm spring day. The 61-year-old artist looks, as always, extremely rumpled, with uncombed hair, shirttail hanging out and a wristwatch pinned to his suspenders. He puts a foot-tall stack of press clippings, monographs and catalogues on the table and says to the interviewer in his staccato, heavily accented English, "Always I am asked the same questions. Always I give the same answers. They're in these books. You can read them for your article. Then we don't have to talk about art so much. We can enjoy our food."

This "test" is delivered with a genial smile, but there's a meaning behind it. Paik is so used to being written about by journalists who are light-years behind his history and concepts that he has devised what he believes is a useful shortcut to what really counts: a sociable meal.

His past and his ideas are better known than he thinks. Paik was born into a wealthy Korean family that during the Korean War resettled in Japan, where Paik studied music and aesthetics at the University of Tokyo. He traveled to Germany in 1956 and eventually met several mentors: the I Ching-driven composer John Cage and the electronically obsessed composer Karlheinz Stockhausen; George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus art movement (a loose association of artists who shared an aesthetic Maciunas called "a fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gags, children's games and Duchamp"), and Joseph Beuys, a then-unknown professor, later to become famous as a mystic, social critic and artist.

In this neo-Dada, performance-oriented milieu, Paik became known for his outrageous gestures (in one "composition," he destroyed a violin by smashing it on a table; in another, he toppled the piano after playing it).

In 1964, he made his way to New York, where, three years later, he amplified his reputation as a "cultural terrorist" by being arrested for presenting a topless cello player in concert. More significantly, the day the Sony Portapak (the first portable video camera-recorder to make the medium really accessible) was released, he bought the first to be sold in America. This, coupled with his co-invention (with computer wizard Shuya Abe) of the first video synthesizer to generate electronic special effects, launched Paik as the godfather of a new media age.

"Paper is dead, except for toilet paper; the cathode ray tube (TV screen) will replace the canvas" was one of his typical early announcements about the coming technological changes that would change art as they would change all of society. "Someday artists will work with capacitors, resistors and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins and junk."

Since then, Paik's computer-altered videotapes, interactive live broadcasts of avant-garde performances and video sculptures have captured the attention of an increasingly technologically aware culture.

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