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Nam June Paik at Tate Modern is, like the artist’s work, nearly inhuman in its scope and ambition. On view through February 9, 2020, the exhibition announces its themes from the very first room. With “One Candle (also known as Candle TV)” (2004), in which a live flame housed within a television set flutters with viewers’ footsteps, Paik incorporates two favorite themes: randomness, and viewer participation. One might know all of that coming in — that Paik was an artist who was peripatetic, prolific, collaborative and fiercely interdisciplinary. If not, the mind will nevertheless form its own connections across this blockbuster retrospective. Case in point, as I contemplated Paik’s “Untitled (Moon and Buddha)” (1978) and “Untitled (TV Buddha)” (1978) — a pair of calligraphic ink drawings each featuring a Buddha, one with a crescent moon and one within a TV — his “TV Garden” (1974-77) began blaring “Moonlight Sonata” from across the room.
Though Paik’s work can be raucous and frenetic, there are moments of clarity in this exhibition. A highlight is the inclusion of “Prepared Piano” (1962-3); in its current state, yellowed keys are sheathed under protective glass, seeming austere and aged. Beside it, a photograph of the piece as it was first installed, fitted with, among other accoutrements, a doll’s head, a working light switch, barbed wire, and a bra, imbues “Prepared Piano” with the memory of liveliness. But it is Manon-Liu Winter and Michael Krupica’s wonderful video work, “For Nam June Paik’s Piano” (2008), that makes the installation, with its original musical composition that resonates through the gallery. Paik was ever the collaborator, and Winter’s score is a fitting tribute, even post-mortem. In another room, “Nixon” (1965) — composed of a pair of Cathode-Ray TVs playing magnetic-coil-distorted clips of President Nixon’s speeches — blends wonderfully with “Random Access” (1963), through which visitors are invited to place an audio head unit against a cassette tape, emitting a user-generated scratchy tapping sound that evokes a muddled message.
But a general feeling of odd pacing pervades the first half of the exhibition, which is further pocked by some strange curatorial decisions. Partly by necessity — many of Paik’s works were purposefully ephemeral — there is a surplus of works on paper and documentation on view. There are works on the walls across from pamphlets in a vitrine, below another line of paper works, in turn below printed quotes, all interlaced with wall text. Gems like Paik’s “Robot Opera” (1964), a program-cum-manifesto with lines like “Pollock/ is/ too sad,” are lost in a tide of material. I was tired by the third room.
It’s no wonder that the most crowded gallery by far — also the first with a bench — is one filled with screens. People sat three to a bench, many, fittingly, on their phones. But it’s also because the work here is so good. A viewer shrieked with laughter at “Good Morning Mr. Orwell” (1984) as a frizzy-haired Sapho singing “TV is Eating Up Your Brain” transitioned into somersaulting dancers, all lorded over by the megalithic, fifty-TV-set “Internet Dream” (1994), whose multi-screen patterns almost cohere into recognition before dissipating, faster than the mind can move.
Though some of his most controversial, Paik’s collaborative works are the strongest here. His works made with cellist Charlotte Moorman pushed his interests in new directions in both subject and concept; together he and Moorman explored the sexuality of classical music (“TV Bra for Living Sculpture” ). After her passing, Paik made a eulogy in her honor (“Room for Charlotte Moorman” ). And while some of Joseph Beuys’s elements may obscure Paik’s presence — he shrieks over Paik in “Coyote III” (1984) — I’m not so sure Paik was interested in making uniformly pristine, or even necessarily good work. He was working too fast for that, and the messiness of collaboration was always central. “I liked it,” he said, of Beuys breaking one of his “Prepared Piano” works in 1963.
Technology-oriented work always risks seeming dated as its components become obsolete. Yet “Sistine Chapel” (1993), the riotous last work in the exhibition, bears its thick wiring and hefty, whirring projectors boldly as it spills Paik’s aesthetic tropes and images of his collaborators phantasmagorically over the gallery walls: here we see Merce Cunningham dancing, there Moorman, elsewhere Beuys, all set to a deafening soundtrack. Even in this age, it’s almost too much to take in. Fitted with decades-old circuitry, Nam June Paik’s work still pulses with energy, breakneck and experimental.
Nam June Paik continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through February 9, 2020. The exhibition was organized by Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and National Gallery of Singapore.