what are you thinking, buddha?
by Douglas Messerli
“Tribute to the Life and Art of Nam June Paik at LACMA,” an evening of remembrances,
performances, projected video works and rarely seen clips / June 1, 2006 at the Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Last night I attended a tribute to the great artist Nam June Paik, who died this past January 29th in Miami. I never met Paik, but Howard Fox (my companion) acquired his “Video Flag Z”—a rectangular wall of 84 television monitors showing white and blue tapes of TV shows (this version one of three concentrating on images of Southern California) in the pattern of an American flag—for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986.
I did see the 1982 retrospective of Nam June’s work at the Guggenheim (April 30-June 27) which consisted of several of his important works, including “TV Bra for Living Sculpture”—made up of two mini-televison sets in a bra arrangement worn by Charlotte Moorman as she bowed the cello (a work, along with Moorman’s “Topless Cellist,” I well remember)—“violin to be dragged on the street,” and “Robot K456,” a radio-controlled robot from 1964. Alas, I remember very little else from that show today.
Before entering the auditorium, I visited the five Klimt paintings—recently restored by the Austrian government to Maria Altmann, the heir to the Ferdinand Block-Bauer estate—temporarily on view at the museum. Altmann, the niece of Adele Block-Bauer, says the painting of her aunt was larger than she recalled. Strangely, perhaps because that one particular painting (Adele Block-Bauer I, 1970) reproduces so spectacularly in photographs, I felt it was smaller than I had imagined. But the seemingly embossed patterns embedded in the dress of the original painting were a complete discovery, and the other paintings were more beautiful than I had perceived through photographs.
As I waited in the theater for the evening’s performances to begin, I reintroduced myself to Simone Forti—who I had met years earlier in New York. Upon hearing my name, musician and sound artist Steve Roden introduced himself to me, thanking me for my Green Integer publications, many of which, he reported, he owned. Bill Viola stopped by to talk with Howard and me for a while before the evening’s events got underway.
After a brief introduction by LACMA director Michael Govan, the event (organized by Carole Ann Klonarides) began with a technical glitch: the early BBC documentary tape refused to appear upon the screen. Viola announced that the evening could not have begun otherwise, without an audio visual problem, something that all video and sound artists perpetually encounter.
David Ross told several stories about Paik from his early days of working with him, beginning at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse to his role as Director of the Whitney from 1991 to 1998. Paik would often call him at 3:00 in the morning, with no sound on the phone other than various fire engines, taxi-doors slamming, and “a symphony of [Ross’s] own body sounds,” except for an occasional small voiced-chuckle: “heh heh.” “Is that you Nam June?” he asked. Long pause. “Heh heh, Ross, you boy genius,” finally came Paik’s response. I felt honored, admitted Ross, that he thought I was a genius, but soon after I realized that he thought everyone was a genius. Later in the evening Simone Forti admitted that she, too, had received numerous such early morning calls—and now she knew who it was!
Ross also described the terror of taking a complete Whitney Biannual show—at Nam June Paik’s insistence and support—to Korea. When the museum officials could not assure the Whitney of proper security, Ross voiced his fears that the insurance costs would be insurmountable, to which Paik replied, “No worry. You don’t need security. Korea, you must remember, is a police state!”
Ross’s comments were followed up by a wonderfully funny live-television interview on the Tom Synder Show with Paik, beginning with Paik’s commentary on his “Video Buddha” and ending with a television projecting Snyder’s image over which Paik placed a chair upon which he sat. Two short clips from “TV Bed” (1972)—with Ross and Charlotte Moorman lying flat on the metal form of a bed—and “violin to be dragged on the street” (1975) followed.
Bill Viola shared numerous experiences he’d had working with Paik, but mostly he simply reiterated how wonderfully open and giving of himself the artist was. He foresaw it all, claimed Viola: the dominance of the television, the possibility of creating a video “magazine” that would destroy all other “magazines,” and the interlinking of individuals through an internet kind of communication. Viola shared clips from the rare video footage of “Gaudalcanal Requiem,” which combined images of World War II overlaid by contemporary images of Charlotte Moorman and others on the island in 1977, the year of the film’s making. Viola, who shot some the images, reported that Paik always said a great deal about what he wanted, but much of it didn’t matter. “He left his collaborators an open field,” conveying in one or two images or metaphors what he was seeking.
After a clip from “26’1.1499 for String Player”—in which Paik simply sits playing 78 r.p.m. records on a wind-up victrola, smashing the ones he doesn’t like on the floor, competing with the player on a nearby grand piano and, ultimately taking a wad of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum from his mouth and placing it upon a recording—Simone Forti performed a beautiful musical piece on a horn made of flexible tubing (generally used to attach a gas stove to its outlet) as she danced. The story she told previous to this performance is worth quoting:
One day I was having dinner at Nam June Paik’s house.
He was talking about one of the classical histories of
China. He picked up a volume and started translating
the page it opened to. The story was about a king
and a master musician. The king commanded the musi-
cian to play for him the saddest music in the world. The
musician refused, saying that the king was not ready to
hear it, and that therefore it would be disastrous.
But the king insisted. The musician played, and the
beauty of the music overwhelmed the king. When the musi-
cian stopped playing, he told the king that he had not
played the very saddest music in the world. The king
insisted again on the very saddest, and again the musician
refused, repeating that the king was not ready to hear
it and that it would be disastrous for the entire kingdom.
But still the king insisted. As the musician started to play,
three dark cranes appeared in the sky, and flew down to
the gates of the palace. At this point Nam June closed the
book. I don’t know the rest of the story.
Various Paik statements, edited for television, followed, including his hilarious conversation with his “TV Buddha,” including his suggestion that Buddha watch television shows other than the image of himself. “What are you thinking, Buddha?” he asks the stoically quiet bronze figure at one point.
Kathy Rae Huffman described the Picturephone Performance project of March 9, 1979, where a gathering of performers in New York and another in the AT&T offices in Southern California attempted a group conference call. The first hour was a disaster, she recalled, for we could not see each other and nothing was working right. Suddenly Paik took out an accordion, sat down, and began playing it. Like magic, the image of the other group suddenly appeared on the screen accompanied by delightful cheering and waving to another on both sides, followed by a wonderful series of events. “That work changed my life.”
After a brief clip from the Documenta 6 Satellite Telecast of 1977, former MOCA curator Julie Lazar (the organizer of “Rolywolyover: A Circus,” a presentation of the work of John Cage) showed Paik’s “Zen for Film,” a blank film whose only sounds are the running projector and occasional ringing of gongs or triangles, and whose only images are dust that has collected on the film and the line-grains of the film itself.
Mary Beebe, from the University of California, San Diego, showed slides and described Paik’s outdoor installations of “Something Pacific” (1986) at UCSD, which consists of various hand-sculpted Buddhas, ancient and “modern,” viewing television sets—often half-overgrown with plants—and televisions thrown from the roof of a nearby building. The reputation of the university will be destroyed if we show these, argued some individuals at the time. “I don’t believe it has had that effect,” Beebe understatedly concluded.
Her slides also included some poignant images from the opening of the installation of Paik with John Cage (a picnic basket in which he was collecting mushrooms in hand) and Allan Kaprow beside him—all great figures of the art world now gone.
A clip from “Alan ‘N’ Allen’s Complaint,” the 1982 work by Paik and his wife Shigeko Kubota, was shown next. In its entirety, this work, using multiple overlaid images and visual transformations, explores “the influence of Jewish fathers on their sons,” through the familiar relationships of writer and artist Allen Ginsberg and Alan Kaprow.
Steve Roden ended the evening with an improvised sound performance based on Paik’s “Primitive Music” and a piano fragment from a recording of “Prepared Piano for Merce Cunningham.” This was a hauntingly beautiful piece that reminded us of what we had been told earlier in the evening: Paik was first and foremost a musician, and he thought of video and performance in musical terms as recurring themes. “He knew Wagner,” Viola argued, “he intimately knew the tradition which he was working against."
Despite the sadness of the evening, the statements of these various individuals and the works we witnessed left the audience, I believe, with a sense of Paik’s irrefutable joy of life, his kind of puckish, child-like exploration of the world about him—the global world, not just the immediate art-world in which he worked. And, in this sense, all participants in this event once more closed the book in forgetfulness of the “saddest song.” Despite a few tears, it was an evening of laughter, which perhaps Paik’s nephew’s comments best characterized: “Paik was not just my uncle, he was my guardian! Can you imagine a Fluxus artist being someone’s guardian? He was more than just an eccentric uncle. He not only played a piano with his head, but on stage he smashed up our family’s grand piano!” Ken Paik Hakuta went on to detail the infamous event at a formal state dinner at the White House to which his uncle had invited him to attend as his guest. “As we approached the receiving line,” he recounted, “Nam June decided to exit his wheelchair and continue with a walker. As he spoke with Bill Clinton, shaking his hand, he suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Ken, I think my pants are down.’ ‘What,’ I responded. ‘My pants are down!’ I looked down and, indeed, his pants were about his ankles; without pausing, I quickly leaned over and pulled them up.’ ‘And why am I not wearing underwear?’ he asked. Clinton took it all in stride, but Hilary looked quite angrily at us. Of course the press were all there to snap a picture of what some had already determined was an intentional act.”
I could almost hear Paik hovering over the crowd: heh heh.
Los Angeles, June 2, 2006
Reprinted from Korean Quarterly, IX, no. 4 (Summer 2006)