Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot, organized by the Asia Society Museum, is the first solo show of the Korean-born artist in New York City since his celebrated 2000 Guggenheim retrospective. In Becoming Robot, curator Michelle Yun presents a portion of Paik’s oeuvre in narrow focus: a largely chronological telling of the evolution of robotics and interactive technology within Paik’s work. The show’s strength is this tight curatorial lens; no piece feels out of place, and the logic is clear and neat. But its weakness is the same: the exhibition is all head and little heart — the emotional context is lost.
Becoming Robot opens with “Robot K-456” (1964), named for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456. This life-size robot, created with the assistance of Japanese electronics engineer Shuya Abe, was built to walk and talk. By today’s standards of technological anthropomorphism, “Robot K-456” looks primitive: a square head, aluminum-pole arms, crude foam-circle breasts, and oversized rectangular feet with wheels. But at the time of its creation, the robot’s ability to look a human counterpart in the eye, so to speak, and move on its own would have made an uncanny impression. During Paik’s 1982 show at the Whitney Museum, “Robot K-456” took a walk outside and was struck by a car — a performance that Paik deemed a “catastrophe of technology in the twentieth century.” The Asia Society exhibition features video footage of the accident. The moment of the crash may cause a sharp intake of breath even for contemporary viewers, since, from a distance, “Robot K-456” appears to exhibit the ambulatory behavior of an autonomous individual; contemporary viewers, however, will likely not be awed by simply looking into the “face” of the machine. This lack points to a profound experiential divide between generations that Becoming Robot would have done well to explicate.
Paik was born in 1932 in Seoul, Korea, and died in 2006 in Miami, Florida. It’s worth remembering that within his lifetime, he witnessed the birth/use of the following (selected) technologies: the atomic bomb, home televisions, spaceships, photocopiers, communications satellites, VCRs and DVDs, personal computers, cell phones, video chat/conferencing, the internet, smartphones, and, finally, personal-platform sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Paik was part of a generation that was born into households without TVs and died with smartphones. The emotional whiplash of witnessing the horror of the atomic bomb and the beauty of a moon landing before the age of 40 may explain the urgency with which the artist tackled questions about the morality of technology, its possible humanness and integration with humanity. For those of us in a younger generation, for whom the pervasiveness of technology can be troubling but remains a given, this sense of gravitas is not always easily understood. It can lead to an overly light interpretation of Paik’s work as predominately witty in tone — a man who created a bra of TVs and was fascinated by the technology of simultaneous transmission.
Becoming Robot, even without a sufficiently elaborated cultural context, does a good job of presenting Paik’s experimentations in reconciling technology and the body, focusing on his work with Arkansas-born, Juilliard-educated cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman. For “Opera Sextronique” (1967), Moorman wore a bikini made of light bulbs while playing the cello; the bikini is included in the exhibition. A film of the performance (Jud Yalkut, Opera Sextronique, 1967) documents the moment when the lights went out and the audience could see only the flashing lights of Moorman’s breasts and pelvis. In “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969), Moorman was outfitted with a bra made of two small TV screens and then proceeded to play the cello. Moorman’s nudity — and the nudity in other performances such as “TV Penis” (1972), in which Stuart Craig Wood covered his penis with a small TV — suggests a technologically mediated form of sexuality, questioning the ability (likelihood?) of technology to actually become sexuality, supplanting its human counterpart.
An adjacent room features “Family of Robot” (1986). These larger-than-life sculptures of baby, mother, and father use TV monitors as heads, hips, chests, arms, and legs, while the monitors display video art created by Paik. Yun juxtaposes the robots with a Paik family photo (“Family Photo Declassified, from the V-IDEA series, 1984”), alluding to an emotional interpretation of the sculptures not as a robotic mimicry of a family, but as a genuine robot family itself. Unfortunately, the exhibition layout doesn’t support this interpretation; the robots are placed too far apart for the viewer to see them embodied in one familial unit. The emotional punch is lost.
Becoming Robot addresses too lightly, or not at all, essential elements of Paik’s life and work that might have added nuance: his early studies in music; his collaborations with Fluxus; his adoration in Korea as an artist who gained success in the West; his incredible predictions of later technologies, including the internet and YouTube. The show does clearly illuminate his basically optimistic view of the power of technology. For example, “Good Morning Mr. Orwell” (1984) upends the dystopian vision of TV in Orwell’s 1984. For the event, Paik organized performances at the Centre Pompidou in Paris by John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, and Joseph Beuys, among others, which were broadcast simultaneously in New York, Germany, and South Korea. Big Brother isn’t watching you, the piece suggests; he’s too busy broadcasting great art.
The takeaway from all this is that Paik, when contemplating the morality of technology, focused more on the moon landing than the atomic bomb. Paik’s own writing, from Manifestos, a Great Bear pamphlet (1966), on display in the first room, offers a more subtle interpretation: “Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important, and the latter need not be cynbernated….some specific frustrations, caused by cybernated life, require accordingly cybernated shock and catharsis.” By this interpretation, Paik’s work is not seeking to reconcile the fusion of technology and the body, sexuality, or morality in any concrete way; rather, it’s offering experiences, visuals, and questions that allow viewers to contemplate that fusion.
Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot continues at Asia Society Museum (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 4.