Nam June Paik and History of Video Art

The mediums of television and film began to dominate in the second half of the 20th century – it was different, progressive, and modern. It quickly became a favorite pastime of millions around the world. Movie theaters took over as the main source of entertainment, pushing art galleries aside. But besides mass-produced films that brought in millions of dollars in revenue, film and video also became a medium for artists. When Sony created the first affordable consumer piece of equipment, everyday people gained access to video-recording, which used to be available only to corporate filmmakers and studios. The video format then brought more interest to the more experimental artists of that period, particularly those involved in avant-garde film, performance, and conceptual art.

Nam June Paik, 1983. Picture: Wikipedia.| Image source: artnetnews.cn

Video Art: Origins and History

Nam June Paik and AndyWarhol were among the first artists to show experimental videos in the early 1960s. Warhol made mostly recorded events of performance art, while Paik began using the TV screen as a canvas and the video camera as a paintbrush. Video art became the exciting new medium of expression and experimental language of contemporary art.

The first artist to use working television sets was Wolf Vostell, the German Happenings artist who invented decollages — his seminal piece, DeutscherAusblick (1959) can be seen in the Museum BerlinischeGalerie. However, the real pioneers of the video art genre are considered to be Andy Warhol (the leader of the Pop-Art movement) and Nam June Paik (Korean musician, sculptor, and performance artist). Paik started producing musical video art in 1965, using one of the first portable Sony video recorders. Warhol produced and screened underground video films that he shot in 8mm and 16mm.

Many of the 1960s and 1970s artists used video to create artwork that parodied television and advertising programs, highlighting what they saw as television’s progressively perfidious power. After seeing how society became entranced with it, these artists started to use video as an artistic outlet to point out the issues of their interest and express their creative desires. They managed to round out the new world of broadcasting ability to include individualized, idiosyncratic, and creative contributions.

Some artists relied on video to make people think more critically about the acceptable ideas of art, challenging Hollywood film conventions. By presenting taboo or often personally intimate subjects on TV screens as artwork, or by eschewing the templates of narration, the early video artists used the television screen and camera to destroy preconceived ideas of what is palatable or even suitable to the art audiences and public alike.

Nam June Paik, Zürich, 1991. © Foto: Timm Rautert. Courtesy Galerie Parrotta Contemporary Art Stuttgart/Berlin. | Image source: wmagazine.com

The Father of Video Art

Nam June Paik’s first solo exhibition took place in a three-story villa in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1963. Among many of his works, there was a room where he exhibited 13 manipulated TV sets, and that was the first time ever an artist used television as a medium. Paik continued to buildup his television experiments for the next five decades, bridging the gap between technology and art in a way nobody has done before. When people were wrapping their heads around how technology and our relationship with it would evolve, Paik was creating artworks with it.

Paik established video as a credible medium for artistic expression in 1965 when he said that his video footage of Pope Paul VI during his visit to New York was a work of art. While sitting in traffic, he glimpsed the Pope, recorded it on his portable camera and presented the barely edited and grainy results that very same day at a screening in Greenwich Village. This artwork was among the first made using the medium of video.

“The More the Better” in 1988 by Nam June Paik at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwancheon, Korea, composed of 1,003 television sets. |Image credit: Robert Koehler | Image source: flickr.com

The symbol of South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is certainly the massive video tower that measures 36 feet in diameter and 64 feet in height. It is a large pagoda of TV monitors created by Nam June Paik. The six-tier flickering tower of 1,003 CRT monitors was installed in 1988. Since then, it has continued to emit colorful images and light to symbolize the immensity of information dissemination and mass communication that came as a result of the mass distribution of the first colored TV.

[YouTube]Video/Installation Art from Nam June Paik – “Megatron/Matrix” and”Electronic Superhighway” displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

Video Art as a Valid Medium of Artistic Expression

For its time, video art was radically new, which is why some artists felt it was an ideal format for pushing limits in contemporary society with art. For example, during the Feminist art movement, many women artists who were trying to distinguish and distance themselves from male artist forebearers chose video for the opportunities that hadn’t been widely established or tapped. Also, many artists with a social or political cause who wanted to spread the unexposed and important information, video came across as a medium conducive to both affordability and broad distribution capabilities.

Today, video art is an established means of artistic creation. It takes numerous forms – from recordings of performance art to sculptures and installations that incorporate computer peripherals, projectors, and flat screen TVs, to works created for digital distributions only. Video art is now ranked as a highly influential medium and many art schools offer the subject as a specialized art major. It is not to be confused with experimental film or theatrical cinema but a genre of its own rather than a movement.


[YouTube] Bill Viola “Ascension” (2000)

Many new generations of artists since the era of Nam June Paik, use video as a medium for its intrinsic and versatile properties.. The incredible ouvre of video art by artists like Bill Viola and Doug Aitken seems to mimic more traditional forms of art, such as abstraction, collage, sculpture, or painting in moving images. A contemporary video art installation may come as a series of spliced and blurred scenes composed as a unique visual image, or it may take the shape of a performance recording meant as a reflection on the perception of objects, space, movement or surrounding architecture. Visual art pieces that utilize various audiovisual manipulations, such as dissonance or distortion of video signals, cannot exist without a video component.

Contemporary video artists are also able to manipulate and edit film sequences thanks to the recent advances in video and digital computer technology. These advancements have drawn more artists into the genre by opening up a wide range of creative opportunities. The Turner Prize, an annual prize presented to an artist born, living, or working in Britain, is one of the key indicators of excellence in the art world and was awarded to video artists in multiple times in the past decades. In many of the art schools in the U.S., the theory and practice of video art is taught as a degree subject and video art regularly makes popular exhibitions in the best contemporary art galleries and museums around the world.

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