Multiple / Dialogue ¡Ä (Nam June Paik / Ik-Joong Kang) 2009

National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

Eugenie Tsai



The exhibition ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± presents an ideal opportunity to look back at the initial pairing of the artists Nam June Paik and Ik-Joong Kang in the exhibition ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± that I organized in 1994 at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion.  My idea was to pair compelling work by a young artist with that of an established artist in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.   The result was ¡°Multiple/Dialogue,¡± a dramatic installation of 20,000 3 x 3-inch canvases by Kang -- sound paintings, woodcuts, paintings of Buddha, and word drawings -- alongside Paik¡¯s video pieces V-yramid, Cage in Cage, and Buddha Watching TV.   The work by these two artists covered nearly every square inch of the walls, from floor to ceiling.  Both Kang and Paik attended the festive opening celebration which featured Sang-Won Park performing on the kayakeoum.   

        ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± took place at a particular moment in the art world in the early 1990s when museums and galleries demonstrated a new openness and receptivity to presenting the work of artists from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.   At the Whitney Museum, David Ross, director at that time, strongly encouraged the curators to take a fresh look at what it meant to be an American artist and to organize exhibitions like ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± that would expand the museum¡¯s mission.  

I first encountered Ik-Joong Kang¡¯s small but energetic 3 x 3-inch canvases around 1990.  A young Korean-born artist, he had taken up residence in New York in 1984 to pursue his MFA at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  A typical student who needed to make ends meet, Kang held several part-time jobs, spending many hours on the subway commuting between far flung corners of the city¡¯s five boroughs.  Imaginative and industrious, he came up with the format of the 3 x 3-inch canvas which he could put in his pocket and pull out when he was in transit.  His small canvases were like pages in a stream of consciousness journal on which he could record thoughts and observations from the continuum of his daily life.  Employing a variety of media and techniques ranging from ball point pen drawings, to English phrases inscribed in bold letters, to objects glued onto the canvas, Kang made thousands of canvases, as though he was attempting to channel the energy he found on the streets.  The canvases pulsed with the rhythm of the city.   

I sensed a kinship between Kang and his older well known countryman Nam June Paik which had nothing to do with their chosen medium.  Educated in Asia and in Europe, where he embraced avant-garde art and music, Paik moved to New York in 1964 and became one of the first artists to explore the potential of television and video as forms of art.   The subject of a solo exhibition in 1982 at the Whitney Museum,  his signature piece V-yramid became part of the Whitney¡¯s collection.   At that time, he enjoyed the distinction of being the only Asian-born artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.  While initially Kang and Paik might appear to be an unexpected pairing, they share a non-hierarchical approach to making art in which anything, even things and circumstances that others might consider inconsequential, can provide inspiration.   As artist Byron Kim aptly observed: ¡°I think of Kang and Paik as a recently evolved breed of city monk picking up wisdom at every storefront and depositing it at every subway stop.¡±   Their democratic approach to content is reflected in their decision to work with a unit -- a television monitor or a canvas -- knowing that the unit can exist as a self contained entity and play a part in producing a larger undifferentiated  whole.   

When I first met Kang, I was delighted to learn of his admiration -- even reverence -- for Paik¡¯s approach to art-making, which he felt he shared.   Kang told me that Paik likened his art to the Korean dish bibimbap which calls for the cook to ¡°throw everything together and add¡± (the title, incidentally, of Kang¡¯s 1994 installation at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco).  This attitude toward cooking and making art is one of openness and flexibility, of accepting and taking advantage of whatever is available.  As long as there is rice, an inventive cook can transform bits of meat and vegetables -- even leftovers from last night¡¯s dinner -- into a delicious bibimbap.   In a similar fashion, as long as Paik has television monitors and Kang has canvases, each can transform their experiences of the world into art.   Both Kang and Paik believe in the adage ¡°the more the better¡± (the title of Paik¡¯s 1988 video tower made on the occasion of the summer Olympic Games in Seoul).  Abundance is a way of showing and sharing a spirit of generosity.   

After ¡°Multiple/Dialogue,¡± whenever Kang would run into Paik on the streets of New York, Paik would say ¡°Let¡¯s have a show together in Korea.¡± But he never specified when such an event might take place.  Then, three years ago the renowned master passed away.  Now fifteen years after ¡°Multiple/Dialogue,¡± Paik and Kang are reunited, this time in Seoul on the momentous occasion of ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± at the National Museum of Contemporary Art.   The exhibition encompasses two major works: Paik¡¯s spectacular video installation The More the Better and Kang¡¯s equally spectacular mixed media installation Climbing the Mountain.  Both works are on long term view at the museum.  

¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± marks two events of great significance: the third anniversary of Paik¡¯s death and the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.   With this exhibition, Kang pays final tribute to Paik, who has played a significant role as an influential and inspirational figure in his artistic development.   By presenting these two distinguished artists from different generations, the National Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the importance and vitality of contemporary art in Korea.   For the opening celebration of ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä,¡± Sang Won Park once again performs, along with the dancer Na-Ye Kim.  In a ritual dedicated to Paik, Kang makes bibimbap to share with all of the guests, a gesture that enables him to reach out posthumously to his teacher, to ¡°wake him up¡± from his eternal slumber.   

Much has changed in the intervening years between the two Multiple Dialogue exhibitions.  Now very well known around the world, Kang was one of two artists to represent Korea in the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997.  He received a special merit award for his exhibition at the Korean Pavilion.  His installation included 6000 sound paintings that the Whitney Museum acquired after ¡°Multiple/Dialogue.¡± In addition to his studio work, Kang has received numerous public art commissions and undertaken ambitious collaborative projects involving the participation of children from many countries around the globe.  In 1993, Paik had represented Germany in the 45th Venice Biennale for which he received one the prestigious Golden Lion awards.  Further burnishing his reputation, in 2000, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, presented ¡°The Worlds of Nam June Paik,¡± a retrospective exhibition that celebrated the artist¡¯s major contributions to the field of video art and new media.  Recently, the Nam June Paik Art Center, dedicated to his life and legacy opened in Youngin, Kyungki Do.  Multiculturalism of the 1990s has given way to globalism of the twenty-first century, with a new understanding and acceptance that we are all citizens of the world.  With artistic roots and professional relationships in many different countries including Germany, the US, and Korea, Paik and Kang are two outstanding examples of this phenomenon.


¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± takes as a point of departure Paik¡¯s The More the Better created at the National Museum of Contemporary Art on the occasion of the 1988 Olympic Games.  A tiered tower, which rises to a point, it occupies a specially designed space encircled by a ramp -- a ¡°mini Guggenheim¡±  -- that allows visitors to ascend alongside this imposing structure to its apex of 60 feet.  Composed of 1003 television monitors in graduated sizes, a number that refers to the date of Korean liberation,  Paik affectionately nicknamed this ziggurat ¡°the wedding cake.¡±  According to Paul Garrin, who worked on the piece, it is the largest video installation ever made by Paik and possibly ¡°the largest ever made on the planet.¡±   Although the monitors, turned out towards the visitors, appear to be simply stacked one on top of the other, they are supported by a steel framework.   In fact, ¡°The More the Better¡± could be regarded as a gigantic vessel.   A doorway opens onto a hollow interior that houses a steel armature, electronic equipment, and a large cooling system.  Like a body, the organs that keep the system running are hidden inside.   Rapidly pulsing images that flash across the television monitors appear to dematerialize the surface of this structure in contrast to the stability of its massive volume.   Through these images the cacophony of the world enters the rarified space of the museum.

The images flickering on the screens of The More the Better are an internal mix of three channels that create a constant barrage of changing shapes and colors.   These images, remixed from other existing tapes with footage from Korea and other sources, are punctuated by a video wall on the fourth channel that plays an edited version of Wrap Around the World that first aired on PBS.  Continuing Paik¡¯s ambitions for live global satellite broadcasting evident in Bye Bye Kipling (1986), Wrap Around the World explores the possibilities of using this technique to link performances that were taking place in different studios around the world.   With the participation of ten countries and stars from the realms of pop and the avant-garde including David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Merce Cunningham, the result was a kaleidoscopic collage of cultural images.  The tape incorporates footage of traditional drumming and dancing that took place at National Museum of Contemporary Art on the opening day of The More the Better.  Garrin, to whom Paik had entrusted the video programming, attributes the spectacular presence of The More the Better to the candy-striped effect of a diagonal line spirals dynamically up the screens of the entire tower.   He created this effect in Paik¡¯s studio on a video synthesizer assembled from a patchwork of electronic equipment that manipulated the video signal.  A preparatory drawing mapping the four channels demonstrates the significance the overall pattern of images played in Paik¡¯s concept of the piece.  In general, Paik¡¯s approach was to create information overload by making the tapes as dense as possible.  In some cases the images change 60 times a second.  With the arrival of the digital age in which instantaneous information and sampling are taken for granted, it is clear that Paik was far ahead of his time.  He was a visionary.  

The More the Better grows out of large scale video installations that Paik initiated in the 1970s, with works such as TV Garden (1974) and Fish Flies on Sky (1975).  These installations activate the architectural spaces they occupy creating a total environment.  Like V-yramid (1982) which looks back to ancient Egyptian monuments, it refers to an historical architectural form.  The More the Better also relates to his video wall structures from the mid-80s, in which monitors compose a matrix that can juxtapose images from multiple channels or function as modules in a larger image.  

After he was invited to present his work at the National Museum of Contemporary art, Kang thought long and hard about The More the Better and concluded that this contemporary video installation draws on aspects of traditional forms and rituals.  The tiered structure of Paik¡¯s sculpture, for example, can be compared to Samcheungseoktap, an ancient three-story stone pagoda of the sort found near Buddhist temples, such as the Seokga pagoda on the grounds of the Bulguksa Temple.  On special occasions including the New Year, monks and visitors circle around the pagoda in walking meditation, an act of devotion, in the hope of receiving a blessing.  This ritual, known as topdori provides a means of communication between the earth and the heavens.  Kang also notes that temples and pagodas are silhouetted against mountains, a scene frequently depicted in Korean landscape paintings.  Characteristically, visitors to a temple precinct must hike up through rocky terrain to reach their destination.   

Inspired by the iconic image of a pagoda set in the mountains and the ritual of topdori, for ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä,¡± Kang produced Climbing the Mountain a multi-media tour de force that employs, image, sound, and visitor participation.   A landscape assembled from 70,000 works drawn from his artistic repertory of the past twenty years, it wraps around Paik¡¯s high-tech pagoda.  Climbing the Mountain fills the entire 540-foot-long wall adjacent to the ramp (with ceiling heights ranging from 11 to 23 feet) as it winds up and around The More the Better.  From a distance, Kang¡¯s wall establishes a backdrop, a stable grid of colored squares that mirrors the modular structure of Paik¡¯s tower while providing a slow, low-tech counterpoint to the rapidly pulsing images on the screens.  Kang¡¯s mountain echoes Cheong Gye San, which stands behind the museum.

Our experience of Climbing the Mountain begins at the foot of the ramp with wax facsimiles of bibimbop from different regions, alluding to restaurants and noodle shops situated at the foot of the mountain where visitors might fortify themselves before setting off.   As the ascent begins, Kang¡¯s canvases reveal their remarkable diversity, although they all fit into the category of nature in its broadest sense: Sam Ra Man Sang -- ¡°everything under the heavens.¡±

Images of a traditional Korean moon-shaped jar represent Kang¡¯s most recent work.  According to the artist, the moon jar, first made during the Choseun dynasty, is appreciated for its simplicity, which is like the sky.  Two hemispherical halves formed out of white clay are joined before they are fired in a kiln to create the vessel.  No two moon jars are alike; the imperfections of shape and surface make each one unique.  The symbolism of bringing together opposites appeals to Kang, who contemplates the many possibilities: north and south; day and night; past and future; plus and minus; and empty and full.   In the artist¡¯s lexicon, moon jars seem to represent the world of dreams and aspirations.  Inspiration for this motif arrived unexpectedly in 2004, while Kang was collaborating with children on Moon of Dream, a project in Ho Su Park, Il San, Kyungki Do.  An enormous inflated sphere covered with 126,000 children¡¯s drawings floated on the surface of the lake.  Due to a slight defect, the sphere bulged more on one side, reminding the artist of a moon jar¡¯s distinctive shape.     

With his paintings of the moon jar, Kang began to diverge from his trademark 3 x 3-inch canvases, sometimes employing a larger format of 24 x 24, 30 x 30, and 72 x 72 inches.  Rendered in tempera, the paintings are sanded before polymer compound is applied as a sealant.  The painted images reflect the same subtle differences in shape and color that are found in their ceramic counterparts.  Moon jars also appear on the sides of eight 2 x 2-foot cubes (2008).  Mounted on the wall, the projecting cubes mimic the appearance of large rocks.  The chanting of Buddhist monks emanates from speakers concealed inside.  Roughly 2000 miniature ceramic moon jars (2008) sit on small shelves extending out of some of the paintings.  Laptop speakers contained within the jars and connected to mp3 players play the sounds of birds calling, water flowing and falling, and wind blowing, all elements of Korean landscape painting.   The sounds were collected from mountains in Korea.  Here Kang integrates up-to-the-minute technology and ancient tradition, as Paik had earlier.  

The image of the moon has been associated with Paik since his famous piece Moon is the Oldest TV (1965), twelve television monitors that appear to show the waxing and waning of the moon.  He achieved this effect by modifying the cathode ray tubes to show a subtle circle of light.  With characteristic humor, Paik comments on the interplay between technology, time, and the cosmos.   

In some sections of the wall, Kang intersperses moon jar paintings with pieces from a series called Mountain/Wind (2007) that portray schematic images of mountains brushed with meok on square blocks of wood scavenged from packing pallets.  The combination of moon jar and mountain suggests heaven and earth, a theme Kang explored in his 2007 government commission for the Kwang Hwa Gate of the Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul.   Entitled Mountain and Wind, this mural stands in front of the Kwang Hwa Gate, screening it from view while it undergoes reconstruction.  Composed of two walls, the smaller, made up of a matrix of moon jars, projects from the surface the larger.  Overlaying the matrix is the distinctive silhouette of the gate as it will appear after its completion.  This is achieved by the illumination of 1000 LED lights situated in the 3-foot gap between the two walls.  The second wall consists of a grid made up of Mt. Inwan, the famous landmark behind the palace complex.  The images of the moon jar and mountain depicted in Mountain and Wind are echoed by the surrounding landscape itself with heaven and earth joined into single universe.  At night the murals glow like a Buddhist temple as the bulbs change colors -- blue, red, yellow, white, and black -- inspired by Dan chung.    Mountain and Wind is one of Kang¡¯s major commissions in public places, along with the San Francisco International Airport, California; the Princeton Public Library, New Jersey; and the Metropolitan Transit Authority subway station in Flushing, New York.

In addition to pieces from Mountain/Wind, the wall includes examples from the eclectic mix of works Kang calls Happy World (the title of his 1998 installation in the MTA Flushing Main Street Station, New York).  Included are small paintings on stretched canvas dating back to the 1980s, as well as more recent paintings on wood sealed with polymer compound.   Red and blue ink drawings from the early 1990s, composed of vocabulary words from the Graduate Record Exam study guide, hang in close proximity to the brightly hued English vocabulary paintings on wood made later in the decade.  Both reveal Kang¡¯s approach to his second language as a system of meaning to master and a series of abstract forms to visually manipulate.  A selection of woodcuts from ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± appears on the wall, along with Buddha paintings, and paintings with attached objects.   Kang¡¯s multimedia installation includes mirrors mounted on the wall, and poong kyung, wind chimes hanging from the ceiling.  The sounds they emit are evidence of invisible natural forces.  Also in the mix are mementos from the artist¡¯s family including his mother¡¯s pedal organ, an instrument she played throughout his childhood, and toys his son played with when he was very young.   As visitors continue to ascend the ramp, they come across a spring, another element found in Korean landscape painting.  Further on, they encounter a platform where they can pause to admire the view and wave to friends.  Microphones on the platform allow visitors to shout ¡°ya-ho¡± to fellow travelers above and below, their voices echoing throughout the space.  A camera trained on the microphone captures their faces, projecting them in wall-mounted digital frames.  .

When visitors finally reach the very top of the ramp they encounter a dramatic waterfall fabricated from word drawings that Kang showed in ¡°Multiple/Dialogue.¡± Laminated together, these drawings form 23-foot-long strips  that are bundled together to create a unique screen onto which an image of a waterfall is projected.   Strategically-aimed fans cause the water to ripple.  The unspoken words in the drawings fall silently toward the floor below, in contrast to the audible chanting of the Buddhist monks and shouting of visitors making their way up the ramp.  Upon reaching their destination, visitors can stop and reflect on their climb up Kang¡¯s mountain and the ritual of circling around Paik¡¯s pagoda.  A trip through ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± brings to mind the universal experience of life¡¯s journey and the quest to attain spiritual enlightenment.    

Like two halves of a moon jar, Paik¡¯s The More the Better and Kang¡¯s Climbing the Mountain come together to form a single entity.  ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± takes the collaboration initiated by ¡°Multiple/Dialogue¡± to another level of ambition and complexity, scaling ever greater heights.  A tribute to Paik as well as to Kang, the whole is much greater than the sum of two halves.   ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± underscores the many conversations that can take place between two artists of different generations and between tradition and artistic innovation, all coalescing seamlessly in this exhibition.  ¡°Multiple Dialogue ¡Ä¡± offers proof that in the hands of masters ¡°throw everything together and add¡± and ¡°the more the better¡± can result in memorable moments and lasting monuments to artistic inspiration.   


Eugenie Tsai

John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art

Brooklyn Museum