[I want] to shape the TV screen canvas/ as precisely as Leonardo/ as freely as Picasso/ as colourfully as Renoir/ as profoundly as Mondrian/ as violently as Pollock/ and as lyrically as Jasper Johns. (Nam June Paik, 1969)
The words above are currently plastered onto the walls of Tate Modern, where a vast collection of Korean-American artist, Nam June Paik’s work is on display. The exhibition underscores his innovative use of new materials for artistic creation, specifically the cathode-ray-tube (CRT) television. The exhibition conclusively demonstrates Paik’s apparent fascination with antique, obsolete and vintage materials. Early photographs of Paik at his studio in New York City show him smiling, like a kid in a sweet shop, in a room filled with clutter. The antique technology that blankets the floor arguably appears as rubbish to most. However, to Paik, broken-down technological devices were inspiration. From television sets, Paik saw something appealing and innovative - an artistic medium that hadn’t yet been explored. The exhibition space that Tate Modern dedicates to Paik’s work takes viewers on an exploration of technological aesthetics through various installations.
Immediately upon entrance, the viewer encounters one of Paik’s most highly-regarded works, ‘TV Garden’ (1974-77). ‘TV Garden’ was displayed in various museums throughout Europe and the United States during the mid-1960s. Countless CRT-televisions of multiple sizes are strewn throughout lush green plants as they flicker through a filmed and repeated montage of global social culture. With this work, Paik demonstrates how technology is embedded organically as a form of artistic and interactive materiality within the human experience.
In the next room, the viewer reencounters CRT-televisions displayed in an entirely different, yet equally absurd and appealing context. Two of Paik’s works from his more extensive ‘Family of Robot’ series, are displayed side-by-side and made up of various televisions from different decades of production. The robots of the broader series are titled ‘Grandmother and Grandfather, Mother and Father’. The current exhibition displays ‘Aunt’ (1986) and ‘Uncle’ (1986). Paik systematically uses TV bodies for each robot whose production date is associated with the subsequent time-spans of familial lineage.
In much of Paik’s work aspects of ancient and modern material confront each other. The exhibition is convincingly exciting and “cool” showing how vintage materials traverse contemporary art practices. Essential to take for the exhibition is that Paik used the television specifically to metaphorically demonstrate how technological structures have joined humanity together. Paik considered television a bridge that linked cultures to one another, and as a powerful conceptual phenomenon that will resist obsolescence. Technological devices will inevitably become outdated. However, technological theory, what Paik referred to as cybernetics continues to evolve with material constructs, while inherently maintaining vestiges of its past. Overall Tate Modern exhibits a robust collection of Paik’s work that probes questions on the ways life is experienced and influenced by artificial and technological realities via the medium of television.