Exhibition “X_ sound: John Cage, Nam June Paik & After”

Written by on April 5, 2012 in Arts

I remember the first time I saw Nam June Paik’s artwork. It was at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Korea) sometime in the ‘80s, a large circular tower compiled of video screens: “The More, The Better”. The multiple screens blink and flicker with various images in different sizes, and you find yourself mesmerized as you look at one, two, several screens at once, and then the installation as a whole as you slowly ascend the spiral ramp that surrounds it.
I also remember the first time I heard the music of John Cage. It was the music for a dance performance by the brilliant dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, and I have to confess that is the sole reason why I am familiar with some of Cage’s work. So when the exhibition “X_ sound: John Cage, Nam June Paik & After” was announced, I was immediately intrigued, for I was not aware of the deep connection between the two artists.

Nam June Paik in 1981: Photo courtesy of National Museum of Contemporary Art

Nam June Paik (백남준) is probably best known as the leading pioneer of video art, although his span of artistic venture is immensely larger than that. Born in the 1930s in Korea, he went to study in Japan and Germany, and by the ‘50s he was part of a group of Neo-Dada artists who were experimenting into new realms of performance and video art. In the ‘60s he headed to New York, found his famous theme of TV screens and established himself as a unique and sometimes controversial artist. He was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism and this subject can be found in many of his work. Greatly interested in technology, he is also credited to have coined the term “super highway” in regards to telecommunication in the ‘70s. In 1984, with the collaboration of many artists, he created an international project via satellite titled “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell”, a project in which John Cage also participated.

John Cage in 1981: Photo by Marion Kalter

John Cage is mostly described as a composer, but like Paik, he was a multi-talented artist and philosopher. He was born in the USA in the early 1910s and later on went to Europe where he studied architecture, painting, and music. He returned to the US in the ‘30s and earnestly started to study and compose music. His interest in modern dance developed during this period and by the ‘40s, he had met with the most influential modern artists of the time and started his long relationship with modern dance troupes including Merce Cunningham, and he spent most of the following years composing for them.
Cage is known for his new and experimental approaches in musical structure and harmony, the integration of chance and improvisation into traditional music methods. He continued to create pieces of visual art and wrote many articles and compositions about his philosophy and aesthetic views.

A young visitor takes in the images and sounds

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth and the 80th anniversary of Paik’s. Paik had wished to pay tribute to his mentor and friend Cage on this occasion and the commemorative exhibition is being held to honor his wish. Along with Paik and Cage, 12 other artists who were influenced by these two pioneers are also showcased; the “After”s.

Many videos to see and hear; many summaries to read

Paik met Cage in 1958. He is recalled as saying his life “started” after meeting Cage; his art evolved rapidly after that encounter and Cage also was greatly influenced by Paik. Together, they tried new forms of communication combining technology with the same artistic view of realizing art’s nature. They both were passionate about sound: ambient, spatial and physical sound, sound of the environment, sound that surrounds us, “expanded” sound, i.e. “x_sound”.

Nam June Paik’s “Cage in Cage”

The exhibition shows Paik paying homage to Cage in various works of his, both musical and visual. There are video clips and articles on display, along with excerpts of letters, dialogues, and discussions. Paik had been a great advocate in introducing Cage to Korea and Japan and his efforts can be blatantly seen.
Cage also had great respect for Paik. The two artists challenged each other constantly and have collaborated on several occasions; many of their work are somewhat corroborative of one another.

John Cage’s “Prepared Piano”

Cage was most famous for his musical piano piece 4’33” (1952), which actually had no music at all, but in his work “Prepared Piano” – highly corroborative of Paik’s “Klavier Integral” which involved 4 pianos and random objects – music is played on the piano which has been altered with nails and screws. A video clip of the composition being “re-performed” can be viewed at the exhibition, as well as the infamous piece 4’33”. Other compositions can be also viewed and heard; famous pieces for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company among them.

Paik’s “TV Piano” lets you be a part of the artwork

As for Paik’s artwork, the exhibition also showcases his vast and impressive “TV Garden” which is literally an indoor garden of TV screens (and also impossible to photograph), photos and videos offering glimpses into his artistic process, and for a truly interactive experience, lets you become an integral part of his art through his “TV Piano”.

Otomo Yoshihide and Yasutomo Aoyama’s “Without Records”

Kichul Kim’s “Sound Looking – rain”

The other participating artists have an impressive showing as well. I particularly liked the huge installation of old record players void of records, delightfully colorful against an equally colorful window backdrop, and the circle of hanging speakers which you could walk into, that sounded of falling rain; X_sounds.

Touchscreen multimedia stands offer a lot of extra footage and information

There is so much to experience at this exhibition. As this is an exhibition centered on video and audio, photos only convey hints of what the experience has to offer; in order to immerse yourself and truly feel the artists’ endeavors, you have to go, see, and listen. And then take another round and see and listen some more.
The complimentary pamphlet that comes with the exhibition is written in both Korean and English and is very detailed in its explanations of the works on display. The introductory summaries that are written on the wall of each section are also in both languages, so understanding the basic premises shouldn’t be difficult, either. A library is also available in the museum should your curiosity not be satisfied.

The Nam June Paik Art Center

“X_ sound: John Cage, Nam June Paik & After”
* March 9th, 2012 ~ July 1st, 2012
* Admission
Adults: 4,000 won
Children: 2,000 won
50% discount for groups and residents of Gyeonggi Province (needs ID card)
* Opening Hours
10:00 ~ 20:00 (Closed 2nd and 4th Mondays)
The Nam June Paik Art Center is in Yongin, Gyeonggi-do, a bit south of Seoul. There are several buses that run from major stops in Seoul to a stop near the museum.
* Non-flash photography is allowed, but video-taping is not.

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul