Nam June Paik: A Memorial Tribute

Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue, NYC, April 26, 2006

Reviewed by Flash Light

Yoko Ono performing
Picture of vase in background

John G. Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim, organized a memorial for pioneering video artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) which was held at the museum on the evening of April 26, 2006. It was a fitting venue for honoring the man who invented video art, and whose show at the Guggenheim in 2000 introduced the new millennium and broke all attendance records at that museum. Excerpts from newscasts documenting his exploits, and videos by and about Nam June were screened. Art world luminaries, who were his colleagues, related various anecdotes about his life.

Russell Conner said Nam June told him, "Television is very democratic. At one time boredom was a privilege of the aristocracy, but today everybody can be bored by television." It was Nam June's goal to end that boredom. He also told Conner, "When they make video phones, I'm going to start a topless answering service."

Jonas Mekas said he remembered Nam June not just as an artist, but as many things including being a comedian, a linguist who spoke 10 languages, and a political activist. He described a Fluxus performance they had done wherein they both simultaneously translated the UN charter, he into Lithuanian, and Nam June into Korean.

But the political performance he thought was the best occurred during the Clinton era. The President of South Korea came to visit the White House, and a dozen prominent Koreans were invited to the dinner, including Nam June, who was in a wheelchair because of having had a stroke. When Clinton greeted him, he started to stand. Clinton told him that wasn't necessary, but Nam June insisted it was, because he wanted to show his respect for the President. However, when Nam June stood up, his pants fell down. All the photographers snapped a picture. Nam June's assistant apologized, explaining that Nam June had lost weight since his stroke, and none of his clothing fit anymore. Mekas however, was sure it had been deliberately planned because this was at the time of Monica Lewinski, and so it was a perfect gesture to show Nam June's respect for a President who couldn't keep his pants up either.

Ken Paik Hakuta, Nam June's nephew, and manager of Nam June Paik Studios, said that in his family Nam June was known as the "crazy uncle." Nam June had once borrowed his family's piano for a performance, and then smashed it into pieces on stage. Hakuta realized this was a good thing, because it meant he no longer had to take piano lessons. He had been Nam June's assistant at the White House who pulled his pants up. "Clinton looked cool as a cucumber, but Hillary looked really pissed."

Shuya Abe is the Japanese engineer who helped Nam June build the first video synthesizer. He said Nam June was so fond making inscrutable Zen pronouncements that to understand what he meant often took several years, and never less than two months.

David A. Ross also mentioned Nam June's fondness for Zen. He therefore felt it appropriate read a passage from a book which he said consisted entirely of the words and poetry spoken by Zen masters at the time of their death. He chose a haiku written by a Zen monk who died in the 1700's. It was translated as, "A last fart. I wonder if that's how my soul leaves?"

Yoko Ono concluded the memorial with a performance titled, "PROMISE PIECE-BONES." A photo of a large vase was brought out by two assistants whose heads were swathed in black gauze. Then they unwrapped a bone white cloth on the stage. On it were pieces of the vase. Yoko explained that she had shattered the vase in memory of Nam June. It broke into 450 pieces. She invited the audience to each take one piece as they filed out. She asked us to promise to remember Nam June Paik, and to return to the museum in exactly 10 years to honor his memory. Then she sat there dressed in black, intently knitting with blue yarn, as we filed by.

It seemed a strangely fitting memorial performance for a man who had originally become known for smashing instruments during his Fluxus performance pieces. The fragment I took has tiny line drawings representing birds in flight. On the back, in black marker, are written the numbers "6.0. ' 06". I assume she numbered all of the pieces. A broken shard of pottery should be worthless, but her performance made it seem like a precious object.

Fragment of vase broken by Yoko Ono to honor Nam June Paik's memory