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Smithsonian’s Nam June Paik puts the “vision” in television
There’s something to be said about the guy who coined the term “Electronic Superhighway” before Facebook was around to help you keep you in contact with your roommate.
Nam June Paik: Global Visionary is the featured exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Born in 1932, Korean-American Paik, were he still alive today, would be more than 80 years old.
Despite being more than twice the age of the artists at the museum’s other exhibit, 40 Under 40, his art evinces changes of the world beyond art. A pioneer who turned the idiot box of television into an art form, Paik brought a fresh perspective to an art world previously confined to still images.
I accidentally started the exhibit at its end, walking into a space with bright neon lights and what must have been hundreds of televisions. I was immediately sucked in by both the sounds and the rotating videos.
Each screen ran footage of events relevant to each U.S. state. In Kentucky, there are scenes of the Derby. In Oregon, there are clips of waterfalls. Next to D.C., there is a small camera, and inside the District, there is a handheld screen with live footage of you, the viewer.
The whole piece, “Electronic Superhighway,” is undeniably magnetic. For anyone who has an interest in digital media, this piece is shocking in all the right ways. Like good art, it tells a story while submerging its viewer into a whole other world.
Back at the start of the exhibit, there was a lineup of televisions showing still images of the kind of graphic your computer would jump to when it went on stand-by, simple but intriguing due to the vintage feel of the monitors themselves.
The end of the hallway was decorated with one of Paik’s most acclaimed pieces, “TV Garden.” Placed at the center of the large room, it darkens the atmosphere of the entire exhibit while bringing life to the interior of the building. Television monitors are placed intermittently between dark green plants, all showing the same video, “Global Groove,” created specifically for the display.
I was captivated by the vision Paik so effectively brought to life, even though I’m ambivalent toward technology. Paik was different. A strong believer in the endless possibilities of human innovation, he was mesmerized by how the world could be forever interconnected. Some of the other pieces on display include TV sets formed into robots, as the artist’s way of personifying technology, as he is perhaps under the impression that the medium of communication itself was worth getting to know.
Paik’s style remained consistent through the years, manifest in the presence of video cameras from the beginning of the exhibit to the end. Opposite the first room of the exhibit, the gallery put together more modern takes of Paik’s video art. Younger artists are beginning to test the waters, leaving the paintbrush for a roll of film and abandoning the canvas to make room for a new monitor.
Perhaps one day another artist will make an entire exhibit on the Facebook timeline itself.