Having Fun with New Toys: Nam June Paik and the Aesthetic of Jaemi

    I first heard of Nam June Paik around the time of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. I first saw his work, Fractal Turtleship, in the summer of 1993 at an art exhibition held as part of Expo ’93 in Daejeon. As I looked at the work, a grandmother and her two grandchildren sat down and took out a roll of kimbap as if they were having a picnic. Before they could start eating, a guard came over and told them not to eat or sit in front of the work. I remember thinking later that Mr. Paik would have wanted them to continue the picnic. Since then, I have followed Mr. Paik’s life and work and wrote several articles on him. In 1996, I gave a presentation on Mr. Paik’s work at a conference in Sydney and the editor of TAASA Review: The Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia asked me to write turn the presentation into an article, which appeared later that year. 


    In an interview in the Shisa Jeoneol, a major Korean news magazine, shortly after the opening of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995, Nam June Paik (1932-2006) mentioned that his favorite Korean writers were the poets Jeong Ji-yong (1902-?) and Kim Gi-rim (1908-?).  These poets were leaders of the modernist movement in Korean poetry, which was active in the 1930s. Both were captured by North Korean forces during the Korean War, but not records of their activities or death remain. When Paik left Korea in 1950, he took these poems with him and used them and works of other Korean modernists to remind him of his “Koreanness” during the thirty some years that he did not visit Korea.

    Today, Nam June Paik is known as the founder of video art and one of the leading descendants of the avant-garde call to “make it new.” The story of Paik’s rise from an interesting wannabe in avant-garde circles in Germany in the late 1950s to his demi-god status of founder of video art has been told many times over.1 In this narrative, most critics assume that Paik brought little more than an interest in Western avant-garde music to his work. His Korean cultural background and bourgeois origins are usually mentioned in a perfunctory introduction to Paik’s life.2 This narrative continues by exploring how Paik was influenced by Joseph Bueys and John Cage. Paik’s artistic accomplishment is thus a combination of exposure to the right artists at the right time and his own innate genius. This is Paik the video artist, but where is Paik the Korean?

    As a Korean artist, Paik was a direct—and the most influential—descendent of the Korean modernist tradition of the 1930s. Paik’s main accomplishment was his constant updating of this tradition with new technologies to create dialogic art for entertainment. Emerging under Japanese colonial rule, Korean modernism is one of many modernisms of the twentieth century, and like all modernisms, it drew on what came before it even as it asserted its break with the past. In bringing his updated version of Korean modernism to the West, Paik did what no Korean artist has been able to do: overcome the Orientalist dilemma by influencing the West with a subverted view of its own culture.

    Jaemi and Korean Modernist Aesthetics

    The Korean word jaemi best summarizes the dominant aesthetic of Korean modernism. The Minjungseorim’s Essence Korean-English Dictionary, one of the most popular portable dictionaries in Korea, defines jaemi as “interest; amusement; enjoyment; fun.” In the arts, jaemi means that a work or performance needs to entertain and stimulate an audience through amusement and fun. Humor, sarcasm, and visual stimulation all qualify as jaemiJaemi also contains the element of surprise and keeps audiences slightly off balance with jocular spontaneity.

    Jaemi as an aesthetic has deep roots in traditional Korean folk and popular culture. The ruling aristocratic culture was dominated by the aesthetics of Confucian literati that placed emphasis on order and solemnity. Aristocrats were allowed to enjoy jaemi during drinking sessions where poetry was composed to music. Among the commoners, folk songs were sung in rounds in the fields with the leader of each round free to change the lyrics to add jaemi to the song. Mask dances used sarcasm and the visually stimulating costumes to bring jaemi to their audiences while poking fun at aristocrats and corrupt rulers. Pansori singers, or traveling bards, used humor and wit in their singing to appeal to audiences in the market place while the audience was free to make approving remarks and noises when they felt that the performance had enough jaemi.

    In the late nineteenth century, Japanese imperialism, which led to the eventual colonization of Korea (1910-1945), threw traditional Korean culture into chaos. A slight loosening of colonial oppression and greater urbanization in the 1920s stimulated the growth or urban-based cultural movements. Emerging in the late 1920s, modernism, particularly in literature, was one of the most prominent of these movements. Feeling lost but liberated in the urban environment of Seoul, the modernists of the 1930s were enchanted with the jaemi that they saw in the streets of Seoul: street cars, shop windows, Western-style buildings, street lights, and automobiles. Having been born into bourgeois families of newly urban comprador capitalists, they had the financial resource and the emotional desire to pursue jaemi in the streets. Modernism declined in the late 1930s as Japan stepped up its efforts to eradicate Korean culture. Japanese oppression and glaring inequality in late colonial society had made the search for jaemi irrelevant.

    Nam June Paik and Korean Modernism

    Born thirty years later than the founders of Korean modernism, Nam June Paik was Korean modernism’s most famous disciple and most creative innovator. Nam June Paik was born in 1932 into a wealthy Seoul merchant family that openly collaborated with the Japanese authorities. Paik’s grandfather was one of the few Joseon-period merchants who was able to adapt the family business successfully to the colonial economy.3 In his childhood, Paik came to know the consumer goods of modernism well. The family was also corrupt in maintaining its position after liberation. Paik said, “In any biography, be it that of a politician or an artist, the psychological profile of childhood is the important one. In this sense, growing up in a very corrupt family in a very confusing time (1932-1950), I learned how to survive, and survive well.”4

    As Paik became a teenager in the years immediately following liberation, he was drawn into two directions at once: to the philosophy of Karl Marx and to the modernist music of Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951).5 New-found freedom and the American occupation’s failure to realize the Korean people’s hope of liberation by punishing pro-Japanese collaborators, inspired many Korean intellectuals to turn to Marxism. Paik first learned of Schönberg’s work though his piano teachers, Sin Jae-deok (1917-1987) and Yi Geon-u (1919-1998), a leading atonal  and left-leaning composer who went to North Korea in 1950 and continued to compose there.

    Concerned that Paik was becoming a Marxist and might escape to North Korea, Paik’s father took him to Hong Kong in 1949 and moved the whole family to Japan in 1951 soon after the Korean War broke, thus denying Paik the chance to reconcile his interest in Marxist philosophy with his love for Schönberg’s modernist atonal music. Cut off from Korea, Paik was now on his own to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He graduated with a degree in aesthetics from the University of Tokyo in 1956; his graduation thesis was on Schönberg.

    After graduation, Paik went to Munich, Germany because Germany was the leading place for electronic music in the 1950s. Life in the West allowed him to retain an image of the Korea of his youth—radios, pianos, peddlers, garden lights, street cars, and the poetry of Jeong Ji-yong and Kim Gi-rim. These are images of the toys and the jaemi of Korean modernism that Paik has used to develop his own version of jaemi.

    Paik’s Synthesis

    Paik used performance, technology, and technological relics to create a dialogic synthesis between Korean modernist jaemi and contemporary trends in Western art. Each of these three elements also defines the four main periods in Paik’s work: participation in the Fluxus movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s; experimentation with TV and performance from the mid-1960s to early 1970s; development of full length videos in the 1970s and early 1980s; and creation of the TV robots in the late 1980s and 1990s.6 Paik created this synthesis by allowing the Korean modernist in him to come out from under the layer of “make-it-new” avant-gardism.

    In the first period, Paik mixed technology with the intensity of traditional Korean shamanistic ceremonies to give his performances jaemi. He worked with Stockhausen in Cologne and met John Cage in 1958, who encouraged Paik to move into performance. Soon after that meeting, he participated in performances with the Fluxus group, one of his first solo performances being his One for Violin Solo in Düsseldorf in 1962.

    Paik began tinkering with audio equipment in the hope of creating new sounds.  In search of new and different sounds, Paik turned to the TV to give jaemi to his sounds, but it was not until 1963 that he had his first solo exhibition entitled Exposition of Music-Electronic Television at the private-house-turned gallery Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany. In this exhibition, Paik spread mutilated pianos and TV’s throughout the house, some producing sound and others silent in their mutilated state. Still under the influence of the neo-Dadaism of the Fluxus movement, these objects and sounds were designed to shock by their jaemi rather than graphic images. This exhibition marked Paik’s adoption of the TV as his most precious toy and source of jaemi.

    From the mid-1960s, Paik moved into using the TV to project images and as part of dramatic performances with Charlotte Moorman. Paik had by this time found his artistic voice in jaemi producing technology. He moved to New York in 1964 to follow John Cage and, despite initial disenchantment with the New York art world, continued to play with technology. In 1965, he used one of the first portable video recorders to film Pope Paul’s visit to New York. That night he presented his video to an audience at Café à Go Go in Greenwich Village; this was the first use of video for art in the world. The video performance at Café à Go Go was a chance for Paik to stay ahead of his audiences technologically to bring jaemi to his work.

    Paik’s performances with Charlotte Moorman, beginning with Robot Opera in 1964, reflected the continued influence of the Western avant-garde on Paik’s work. By having Moorman perform topless while playing a cello made out of TV’s in Concerto for TV Cello and Video Tape in 1971, Paik sought—in the Fluxus tradition—to shock viewers through an attack on the institutionalized classical music. The TV Cello could produce colorful synthesized images and sound. Paik was eager to experiment with these technologies to build on his earlier work, and he used them to add jaemi to the anti-establishment urge to shock viewers.

    In the 1970s and early 1980s, Paik again turned to the latest technology in his search for more jaemi. In this search, Paik moved toward a synthesis between shock and jaemi. His first major video project, Global Groove, was produced in 1973 and broadcast in New York on PBS Channel 13. He used satellite technology in other video projects such a Good Morning, Mr. Orwell in 1984 and Wrap around the World in 1988. In these video projects, Paik used a video synthesizer and, as the technology became available, laser and computer graphic technology to create multiple moving images on the screen. Paik thus used the TV as his main medium to convey jaemi through a multiplicity of images and movements on the screen.

    Paik’s 1984 visit to Korea was the first in 35 years, and it started a broad shift in Paik’s work.7 Despite the immense change in Korea during the intervening 35 years, the jaemi of the streets of Korea brought back memories of the street jaemi that Paik had known as a youth. This renewed sense of jaemi stimulated Paik to develop his series of TV robots, starting with Family of Robot series in 1986. These robots, like John Cage Robot II (1994), were named after persons in Paik’s life and various historical figures. In these works, Paik used the TV as an object and as a medium to convey jaemi. As an object, Paik treated the TV as a thing, another commodity found in the market place, by arranging new and old TV’s into loosely organized TV sculptures. As a medium, Paik used ever-advancing computer graphic technology to bring the screens of his TV’s to life with movement, color, and the iconography of contemporary media culture. Many of Paik’s robots contain industrial relics, such as radios, cameras, and bicycles, that were popular in Paik’s childhood. These relics reveal Paik’s interest in getting in touch with things from his past even as he continued to play with the latest video and computer graphics technology.

    Paik’s The Electronic Super Highway: Travels with Nam June Paik (1995) exhibition paid homage to jaemi through a dialogic mix of twentieth-century Koreana and Americana with bright colors and whirling computer graphics. The spontaneity and humor of Korean modernist jaemi, with its base in spontaneity, flexibility, and the randomness inherent in traditional Korean aesthetics, finally won out over the Western avant-garde urge to shock the bourgeois audience out of its complacency. Paik evoked the image of toil in the Korean market place in Burn Calories Not Octane (1993). In this work, the vender of used TV’s, represented by an old American gas station pump, is riding an old Korean bicycle with used TV’s tied together and piled up on the venders back. Paik thus cleverly intermingled images of Koreana and Americana from the middle years of this century with the jaemi color and movement from high-tech computer graphics. In Rt 66, BBS (1994), Paik explored the use of the cathode-ray tube as the canvas of the future through a multitude of colors and moving images on the screen. These works present jaemi in terms of color and movement, rather than through iconography. In organizing the exhibition as a tour through “Cybertown,” Paik wanted to let viewers loose in a jaemi-rich urban space, much as the modernist writers and artists enjoyed in the streets of Seoul in the 1930s.


    For all his success as the founder of video art, or, as I have argued, the innovative descendent of the Korean modernist tradition, Paik remained ambivalent about the meaning of his life and work. By turning the TV and other technological relics into toys, Paik turned technology into a provider of jaemi. He then talked about the “electronic superhighway” and said that “the future is now” with great conviction. He made fun of the art world, but has exploited the art world—the art system—to mythologize himself as the founder of video art. Paik knows what every good artist in the late twentieth century should know: mythologized artists sell.

    Nam June Paik was not a combination of Paik the video artist and Paik the Korean. Rather, he was a combination of Paik the inheritor of Korean modernism and Paik the inheritor of bourgeois careerism. Paik’s reflections on his youth show that he liked to listen to the radio, ride in the car, and play the piano. These things were Paik’s first sources of techno-jaemi. As he saw his family use its wealth and power to maintain the status quo after liberation, Paik learned that systems have to be manipulated for self-protection, and that ideals matter less than practicality. By giving us jaemi, Paik has helped to desanctify art and make it fun again. By showing us how he worked the art world, Paik has helped to lay bare the fallacies of art-world discourse burdened by superficial postmodern relativism. As Paik said, “To take the fame out of art, well that’s the most important thing.”8 These two achievements could only be the work of Paik the revolutionary.

    1. Patricia Mellencamp, “Nam June Paik: The Old and the New,” Art Journal 54 no. 4 (1995): 41-47. For discussions of Paik’s video art, see Paul Gardner, “Paik Unplugged,” ARTNews (January, 1995) 134-136; Honghui Kim, Paek Namjun kwa geu eui yesul [Paik Nam June and his Art] (Seoul: Doseo Chulpan Dijainhauseu, 1992); and Toni Stoss, “Video Time—Video Space” in Toni Stoss and Thomas Kellein, eds. Nam June Paik: Video Time—Video Space (exhibition catalogue) (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 9-16; for examples of popular description of Paik’s career, see David Howard, dir., “Nam June Paik: Avant Garde Video” video, 28 min., (San Francisco: Visual Studies, 1995).
    2. Taehui Kang, Nam June Paik: Early Years (1958-1973). Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1988.
    3. Kijun Cho, “A History of Korean Entrepreneurship” in The Electronic Super Highway: Travels with Nam June Paik (exhibition catalog) (Ft. Lauderdale: Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art, 1995), 3-8.
    4. Yongwoo Lee, “NJP: A Walk through His Adolescent Years” (interview) in The Electronic Super Highway: Travels with Nam June Paik, 13.
    5. Nam June Paik, “‘Pensées’ at 59” in Stoss and Kellein, eds. Nam June Paik: Video Time — Video Space, 17.
    6. For biographical details in this section, see Taehui Kang, Nam June Paik: Early Years (1958-1973), Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1988; Eva Keller, “Biographical Notes” in Stoss and Kellein, eds. Nam June Paik: Video Time — Video Space, 133-137; and Calvin Tomkins, “Video Visionary” in The Electronic Super Highway: Travels with Nam June Paik, 17-37.
    7. Yongwoo Lee, personal communication, August 10, 1993.
    8. Nicholas Zurbrugg, “Nam June Paik: An Interview,” Visible Language 29 no. 2 (1995) 130.

    Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “Having Fun with New Toys: Nam June Paik and the Aesthetic of Chaemi,” TAASA Review: The Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1996.

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser


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