Multiple Dialogue / 1994

Nam June Paik and Ik-Joong Kang

Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion

Eugenie Tsai



Recently, I met Ik-Joong Kang, an artist in his mid-thirties, for the lunch at one of the many Korean restaurants that have recently sprung up in the west Thirties near Herald Square in Manhattan. We ordered bibimbap, a dish Kang had mentioned in an earlier discussion concerning the art of Nam June Paik, one of Kang¡¯s heroes. Two sizzling stoneware bowls arrived at the table filled with finely shredded vegetables and meat arranged in separate sections on top of rice. After we added hot sauce, Kang instructed me to stir everything together with a large spoon before digging in. I had asked him to order bibimbap thinking its presence before me would clarify its connection in Kang¡¯s thought to the art of Paik, but at the end of the delicious meal, I was still puzzled and turned to Kang for enlightenment.


Kang, Whose admiration for Paik dates back to his adolescences in Korea, fells that he and his old compatriot share a similar approach to art making. He recalls an interview he saw on Korean television in the mid-eighties, in which Paik compared his way of making art to bibimbap. This dish has traditionally consisted of rice mixed with bits of meat, fish, vegetables, seasonings-whatever was on hand. Although the permutations of dish are infinite, the underlying constant is rice. Kang likens Paik¡¯s art and his own to bibimbap (translated roughly a ¡®mixing rice¡¯), which requires the cook to ¡°throw everything together and add¡±- the title of Kang¡¯s recent installation at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco. The cook who prepares bibimbap exhibits a flexibility and openness to everything, within a given structure.


¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± pairs the work of Paik, the sixty-two-year-old pioneer of video art, and Kang, a painter some thirty years Paik¡¯s junior. The paring was not made on the basis of media, but on shared themes and systems of organization. American popular culture, the stuff of daily life, holds Paik and Kang in thrall, and appears as image, artifact, and sound in their respective work. Both artists regard their adopted culture from the distinctive perspectives of Korean-born immigrants who survey the ebb and flow of their environment with a perpetual sense of wonder and bemusement. Their observations display similar wit, cleverness, and self-deprecatory humor. The work of both id organized by modular units that build up to a larger whole. Characteristically, Paik stacks a number of television monitors, big and small, into various configurations, whereas Kang aligns thousands of 3 x 3-inch canvases to form an orderly grid. Both artists subscribe to the edge ¡°the more the better¡± (the title, incidentally, of Paik¡¯s piece at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games), believing that an accretion of multiples best captures the vast undifferentiated field of contemporary life. In the analogy between Korean cuisine and the art of Paik and Kang, the modular structure is clearly the shared constant, the given that organizes the miscellaneous images and incidents from life.  In short, Paik and Kang throw everything and add. A luminary in the international world of video art, Nam June Paik began his career as an aspiring musician and composer: Born in Korea in 1932, he left with his family for Hong Kong at the outset of the Korean War: From 1953 through 1956, Paik studied music, art history, and philosophy at the University of Tokyo, where he graduated with a thesis on the composer Arnold Schonberg. He then traveled to Germany to pursue his interest in avant-garde music, enrolling first at the University of Munich. Soon after, he settled in Cologne, where he worked with experimental musician Karlheinz Stockhausen and performed at the studio of artist Mary Bauermeister. During these years, Paik also met two individuals who would play significant roles in shaping his artistic concerns: composer John Cage and artist George Maciunas.


Paik¡¯s performance of Homage a John Cage: Music for tape Recorder and Piano in Dusseldorf in 1959, the year after Paik and Cage met, is evidence of the Korean artist¡¯s esteem for Cage.  The improvisatory nature of the piece, as recollected by Ernst Thomas, was entirely consistent with Cage¡¯s embrace of randomness and chance operations:


In this ¡°music¡± for tape recorders and piano the most bizarre things happen in five minutes: there are howls of electronic noise, eggs splash against the wall, a motorbike clatters off, a musical box tinkles, the radio blares out political news, Paik plays Czerny-like exercise on the piano, a rosary files past my head, an old piano has to produce its last sounds on strings that have been torn out, then it is hurled over with a thunderous noise; suddenly there is silence and complete darkness, and finally Paik¡¯s unyielding force, illuminated by a stump of candle.1


Another interaction with cage occurred the following year at Paik¡¯s performance of Etude for piano forte, during which Paik jumped unexpectedly into the audience where Cage was seated and cut the composer¡¯s shirt and tie with scissors.


In 1961 Paik met George Maciunas, one of the founders of Fluxus, ¡°a loose, anarchic association of artists who, in actions, exhibitions, compositions and manifestos, created a rebellious alliance against perceived institutions and trends in high culture.¡±2 The following year, Paik performed Zen for Head at a Fluxus international Festival for very New Music in Wiesbaden. In this performance, Paik dipped his head, hands, and necktie into a bowl of ink and tomato juice, and dragged them along a long narrow sheet of paper. The absurdity and performance nature of this gesture were typical of Fluxus.


Paik began to produce objects only in 1963, the year of his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. The exhibition, which included three altered pianos and thirteen television sets with images scrambled by manipulated cathode-ray tubes, marked the beginning of the artist¡¯s experimentation with television as a medium. At the opening, one of the pianos was attacked by artist Joseph Beuys wielding an ax. This improvised action suggests that although Paik had begun to produce actual objects, they were sometimes impermanent and unstable, more like expendable props in temporal performances.


After his move to New York on 1964, Paik¡¯s experimentation with the medium of television expanded into the new realm of video recorders sold, and that same day, filmed Pope Paul VI¡¯s visit to New York. The footage was shown that evening at Café a Go-Go. Later that year, Paik¡¯s first videotape recorder installation was presented in ¡°Electronic Art¡± at Gallery Bonino in New York. Throughout the seventies, Paik¡¯s videos became more technically sophisticated, and he was eventually able to program multi-channel over a spectrum of monitors.


Paik¡¯s V-yramid (1982) a ziggurat constructed from forty television consoles of gradually diminishing dimensions, is the outgrowth of two decades of experimentation with the medium of television and video. The monument draws visual parallels between the ancient age of pyramid and the modern age of media, paying tribute to the state-of-art technology in the respective eras that produced these innovations. The television monitors into a montage of discrete, pulsating kaleidoscopic fields whose shapes and colors constantly change in time to a ¡°found¡± soundtrack. In keeping with Paik¡¯s global outlook, the soundtrack includes rock and roll and traditional Korean music. The abstract images of V-yramid are comparable to the manipulated televisions of 1963, but here the pictorial effects are achieved by a technological advance: a synthesizer developed by Paik and engineer Shuya Abe.


As in V-yramid, the images that materialized on the nine small screens of Cage in Cage (1993) create an ever-changing montage. Here the images are recognizable; footage of Cage slowly cuts or dissolves to Buddha in the snow, alluding to Cage¡¯s knowledge and love of Asian culture. The meditative aspect of the work is reinforced by the absence of sound. Cage in Cage, made the year after the composer¡¯s death, is one in a series of pieces that pay final tribute to Cage. The title and the large multistoried birdcage which houses the video monitors are verbal and visual puns on Cage brought a Westerner¡¯s eye to a sustained interest in the East, Paik has done just the opposite.


The meditative quality of Cage in Cage is also found in Buddha Watching TV (1994), theme taken up in the mid-seventies. A seated statue of Buddha contemplates a television on which its own image appears. This evocative piece suggests multiple associations: the trance induced by meditation as compared to the stupor induced by watching television: the self, and the representation and perception of self; the juxtaposition of a tradition associated with the ancient East with the up-to-the-minute technological West. Of course, with the recent technological hegemony of the East, perhaps the Juxtaposition has become one of the East past and present.


Nineteen-sixty, the year Paik jumped into the audience during hid performance of Etude for piano Fore and cut Cage¡¯s tie and shirt, was the year Ik-Joong Kang was born in Cheong Ju. Kang received his BFA from Hong-Ik University in Seoul in 1984, with training in Korean brush painting and the European tradition of abstract painting. Upon his arrival in New York soon after graduation, he enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he was awarded his MFA in 1987. Kang developed the 3 x 3-inch format he still favors during his days as a student. This format developed outside the classroom, however, in response to practical necessity. An impoverished student, Kang worked a twelve-hour day at Korean grocery store in Manhattan and as a watchman at a flea market in Far Rockaway, Queens. Looking for ways to effectively utilize time spent on the long subway ride to Far Rockaway, he discovered that 3-inch-square canvases fit easily into his pockets and into the palm of his hand. His lengthy commute became transformed into work time in a mobile studio. The paintings produced by Kang at this time were diaristic and immediate, recording momentary thoughts, fantasies, observations, and reactions to the events of everyday life. Although the artist calls these paintings, they are more accurately characterized as mixed-media works, for they often include words, drawings, and objects affixed to canvases.


The 3 x 3-inch format was convenient and, as Kang notes, corresponds to the distance between our eyes. In addition, the particular associations these dimensions hold in Asian cultures appealed to the artist. Kang points to shoji screens composed of 3-inch squares, the perfect size in Zen thought, and to wooden containers from which sake traditionally is drunk. His miniature canvases, which fit into palm, conform to an Asian belief that what is revealed in the palm reflects what is in the mind. The artist also recalls a scene from a Japanese movie, Blind Shogun, in which a samurai warrior observes the landscapes through a small square ¡°frame¡± formed by putting the soles of his wooden platform sandals together. In this sense, Kang¡¯s painting can be regarded as an Asian equivalent of the Italian Renaissance concept of painting as a window opening onto a coextensive world.


The several thousand paintings in ¡°Multiple/Dialogue,¡± representing a decade of Kang¡¯s work, have remained constant in size and imagery. They continue to address personal obsessions and fantasies, and to ponder cosmic questions-the meaning of life and death, the roles of the spiritual and carnal-along with the more mundane: bodily functions and insular New York art world. The paintings continue to make use of written notations, aphorisms, caricatured and cartoon-like images, and found objects collaged onto the surfaces of canvases. Kang¡¯s method of working, however, has been slightly altered. He no longer creates on the subway but in a tiny studio, and his paintings often reflects events and non-events observed on his daily walks between his home in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and his studio just below Canal Street.


¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± includes work dating back to Kang¡¯s first exhibition in New York in 1986 at the new defunct Two Two Raw Gallery. There, seated in a tent-like structure for ten-hours a day. Five days a week, the artist made paintings. Over the course the one-month ¡°living¡± performance, he produced a thousand paintings and hung them randomly on the walls. In 1988, Kang adopted a regular grid format in his installation of 6,000 canvases in Broad Windows. Two years later, the element of sound was introduced in ¡°Ssound Paintings¡± at Montclair College. Of the 7,0000 paintings on view, 2,000 had small speakers imbedded in the back. The aural component corresponded to the four elements of traditional Korean landscapes painting: water (the sound of the ocean); mountain (birds); clouds (thunderstorm); trees (wind). Performance, the grid, and sound continue to be the basic components of his work.


Kang initiated a series of woodcuts in 1991. His original motivation was to make art for the visually impaired; he intended to send them to his father in Korea, who had lost his sight as a result of diabetes. Like the paintings, the woodcut respond to the ephemera of everyday life and are often based on quick sketches made by Kang on the daily walks between his home and studio. However, they are more laborious to make than the paintings and demand a great degree of patience, physical endurance, and mental focus. Kang likens the woodcut to ¡°casting an ides in bronze,¡± implying a commitment to an idea in a more permanent material that calls for a time-consuming process.


A series of drawings from 1992 is devoted solely to the written word-English vocabulary Kang obtained from a study guide for the Graduate record Examination. The English phrases are written in red and the Korean equivalent in blue. These colors on white graph paper give the drawings the appearance of an American flag. The drawings call attention to the materiality of language, which becomes especially evident when it is unfamiliar. As any traveler will attest, an unknown foreign language becomes a concrete entity that veils ideas.


The 1992-1994 series of paintings, Buddha Learning English, differs from Kang¡¯s other work in that it uses traditional Asian iconography. Based on the artist¡¯s memories of childhood visit to Buddhist temples, the paintings represent the single iconic image of a seated Buddha. An audiotape of the artist reciting phrases in English culled from recent magazines, newspapers, and books accompanies these images.  The activity of Buddha rehearsing English phrases out loud t o perfect pronunciation is one Kang identifies with.  The juxtaposition of image and word, however, suggests that the Buddha is a metaphor not only for Asian culture but for Buddha¡¯s openness to the West, an orientation that also parallels that of the artist.


Kang has continued the practice of displaying huge numbers of his paintings and woodcuts in neatly arranged grids.  ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± includes approximately 20,000 works.  East time he installs his canvases and woodcuts, he rewrites and revises his own history, for no two installations are identical.  The vast undifferentiated grid records transitory moments in the continuum of Kang¡¯s life, yet these are displayed randomly, with no single moment regarded as more significant than another.  The canvases and woodcuts are also recontextualized by what hangs above, below, and to either side, and by the audiotape component.


Although Paik  and Kang are omnivorous consumers of the sights and sounds of popular culture, their work differs in significant ways that are related to their media.  Paik¡¯s altered televisions subvert straight programming by commercial television stations.  In this way, he critiqued television at a moment in the early sixties when it was becoming a fixture in American households.  In a similar fashion, his videos, by recycling material pirated from actual programs or from his own work and incorporating it into a montage without a linear narrative undercut the premises of television as ¡°reality¡± framed-an updated version of the Renaissance notion of painting.  Here Clement Greenberg, the renowned critic of the sixties, comes to mind, with his belief about using the characteristic nature of a medium as a mean to criticize and purify it and thereby affirm its area of competence. 3  Although Greenberg would have regarded video as outside the boundaries of art, Paik¡¯s systematic exploration of the unique video as outside the boundaries of art, Paik¡¯s systematic exploration of the unique characteristics presented by video as a medium belongs to the same critical moment.


In contrast, Kang¡¯s chosen medium is the traditional paint on canvas, with its emphasis on the mark of the artist.  The themes in his paintings are, not surprisingly, personal; regarded as a whole, his installations reveal his most intimate thoughts.  But they are structured, like Paik¡¯s video, in a non-linear sequence.  In this respect, they too can be regarded as a critique of the grand tradition of history painting as it originated in Renaissance Italy and culminated in the work of such nineteenth-century French artists as Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix.  Each one of Kang¡¯s paintings is clearly modest.  The grand gesture lies in the overwhelming number on view at any one moment.  


Some of the distinctions between the work of Paik and Kang can be attributed to the artistic priorities of different generations.  In Paik¡¯s work, the artist¡¯s touch is nowhere in evidence.  The subject is not the artist but the media of television and video.  The work represents the ethos of the sixties, which advocated the effacement of the artist through the use of industrial materials and fabrication, and the deployment of uniform modules associated with assembly-line production.  Kang¡¯s paintings and woodcuts, like the work of many other artists who began in the late eighties and early nineties, reintroduce the autobiographical.  Although he too employs a standardized module, each 3 x 3-inch canvas is personal, stretched and painted by hand.  The artist¡¯s presence is clearly visible in the line and brushstrokes, his voice is audible on tape.


With the decision to use the armature of the grid, Paik and Kang also join an art historical dialogue.  Throughout the twentieth century, the deployment of the grid in Europe and the US was commonly regarded by artists and critics as a self-effacing gesture, a way to erase the artist¡¯s presence and to declare the distance separating art from the everyday world.  Rosalind Krauss wrote:


In the spatial sense, the grid states the absolute autonomy of the realm of art.  Flattened, geometricized, order, it is anti-natural, anti-mimetic, anti-real.  It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.4


Although Paik manipulates television monitors to form a matrix, his use of media imagery transgresses the boundary of ¡°high art¡± into the territory of popular, where it pulsates with life.


The dialogue initiated here between Paik and Kan extends beyond their work, becoming a dialogue between life and art, different artistic traditions, and different generations.  What unifies the dialogue is the quest of both artists to capture and comment upon all that is elusive in the continuum of contemporary life.