The New York Times

September 18, 1994, From Korea

the Makings of a Dialogue With a New Homeland

Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion


Vivien Raynor



The Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion in Stamford is busy with small images that from a distance could easily be mistaken for tiles on a mosque.  Upon entering, visitors pass through a prescenium packed floor to ceiling with the canvases of Ik-Joong Kang, each of which measures three inches square.  Beyond, they see similarly covered walls acting as backdrops for a few assemblages by Nam June Paik.  But the largest of these stands in a corner alone, a 15-foot-high pyramid of television monitors playing the same videotape, but not in unison.


The show pays tribute to the multiplicity of everything in the United States and in so doing it illuminates the contribution made to 20th-century are by artists born in Korea.  Officially, this contribution began in the late 1950¡¯s, when Mr. Paik, a musician and composer just graduated from the University of Tokyo, went to work in Germany with the master of sonic experiment, Kariheinz Stockhausen.


While in Germany Mr. Paik staged an homage to John Cage and, not long after, performed ¡°Etude for Pianoforte¡± before an audience that included Mr. Cage.  Without warning, Mr. Paik took a pair of scissors to the American composer¡¯s shirt and tie.  Oedipal as it may seem, the gesture proved that besides being the most sincere form of flattery, imitation is an excellent way of attracting attention.


A few years later and, again in Germany, came the artist¡¯s first exhibition of objects – television beaming scrambled images and pianos that had been altered.  The kicker on this occasion was Joseph Beuys assaulting one of the pianos with an ax.  Small wonder Mr. Paik merged with the Fluxus rebellion, an updated version of Dada and a precursor of Performance art.


After moving Manhattan in 1964, Mr. Paik branched out into video; in 1965 he taped Pope John 6¡¯s visit to New York and showed the result two hours later at the Café a Go-Go.


The rawness associated with spectacles he once engineered has departed from his work, thanks to technological progress and, in particular, to the synthesizer developed by Mr. Paik reigns as the electronic master, producing imagery that is corporate smooth.


The shapes in the Whitney pyramid, a 1982 work titled ¡°V-yramid,¡± throb and repeat themselves to a virtually inaudible sound track.  The shapes are brightly colored abstractions with figural illusions and for a while the eye tries to make sense of them, only to give up and go with the uninflected flow, as with normal television.


In the show¡¯s catalogue, Eugenie Tsai (the show¡¯s curator as well as the director of the branch museum), describes the exhibition as a dialogue ¡°between life and art, different artistic traditions and different generations.¡±


Indeed, the gap between the two performers seems unbridgeable, but, soon enough, affinities begin to emerge.  Mr. Paik may be a latter-day Duchamp to Western sensibilities, but the émigré characteristics so obvious in Mr. Kang¡¯s work can still be detected in Mr. Paik¡¯s.  One is an elliptical sense of humor.  Ms. Tsai observed that ¡°While Cage brought a Wester¡¯s eye to a sustained interest in the East, Paik has done just the opposite.¡±


Mr. Paik does it most effectively by placing a wax approximation ofBuddha in fron of a small television all but buried in earth.  Behind stands a camera recording the scene, which can include the viewer.  There is humor enough in the idea of Buddha contemplating a television screen with the same detachment that he brings to the cosmos.


But the idea acquires an edge when one realizes that the philosopher¡¯s stare is no less glassy than that of a family watching, say, ¡°Married With Children.¡±


As everyone knows, sights and customs that go unnoticed by the natives of a country are lodes of profundity – or absurdity, as the case may be – for immigrants.


Although Mr. Kang, now 34, is one of several Korean artists mining these lobes, he does it in a stream-of-consciousness way that passes for innocence but is firmly based on his studies of traditional painting in Seoul and of the Western variety at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.


Ms. Tsai points out that the three-inch square has a special significance in Asian cultures, being, among other things, the perfect size in Zen thought.  But she goes on to explain that the format was just right for an artist obliged to support himself in two jobs, one in Manhattan, the other in Far Rockaway, Queens, since it enabled him to work while traveling on the subway.


Everything is subject matter for Mr. Kang.  In one picture, he portrays two profiles, the first captioned ¡°Gallery Artist,¡± the second, slightly larger, ¡°Artist.¡±  Underneath a picture of a hand grenade he writes ¡°Chicago/ Was/ Very Cold.¡±  He flips from international politics to cocaine and sex.


Finally, there are the pairs of handwritten words – usually a noun modified by an adjective – that occupy the wide borders on the drawings.  ¡°Rational concept,¡± ¡°singular judgment¡± and ¡°added significance¡± are some examples.  Behind the wall of pictures titled ¡°Buddha Learning English,¡± the artist himself can be heard on tape practicing such combinations until he goes them right.


In a catalogue essay, the painter Byron Kim remarks that ¡°for Paik and Kang nothing is too small to be elevated and celebrated.¡±  Ms. Tsai quotes Mr. Kang likening his output and that of his mentor to bibimap, a Korean dish that requires the cook to ¡°throw everything together and add.¡± (The phrase is also the title an installation shown in a full-page color illustration in the show¡¯s catalogue.)  The question is whether either artist would have scaled the heights of obsession is he had remained at home.


It is a beautiful show but prospective viewers are advised to take it in small doses, with plenty of rest in between.  The show remains through Sept. 28.