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The Founder of Video Art, Nam Jun Paik and Shamanism
interview of Lee Young-Cheol
Lee Young-Cheol is Professor of Theory at the Kaywon School of Art and Design. He was first Director of the Nam Jun Paik Art Center. He established Anyang Public Art Project, and Factory Art Festival, and worked as the General Director of the 2nd Gwangju Biennale, and 2nd Busan Biennale.
1. From the viewpoint of science and technology and modern knowledge, some negatively see the assertion that Nam Jun Paik’s art is associated with shamanism as the means to generate Western attention. What do you think?
I consider Nam Jun Paik ‘a master shaman’. We live in an age when a shaman’s capability is replaced with science and technology. A master shaman is one who can foresee the future and communicate with the public in a creative manner through his understanding of science and technology. Paik performed a gut (shamanic ritual) in his first solo show at Galerie Parnass. The gallery was named after Mount Parnassus, a holy mountain in Greece. According to Greek mythology, in the mountain there was the Temple of Apollo housing the Oracle of Delphi and the mountain was home of the Muses, goddess of literature and the arts. It is evident Paik, with profound knowledge of Western classical culture and liberal arts was interested in the connotation of the name Galerie Parnass being where his first show took place. In a word, Paik performed a gut summoning gods living in Mount Parnassus. He hung a bull’s head over the gallery entrance, and created a galaxy of sounds. ‘Video art’ was initiated here.
I am also confident Paik regarded the first floor lobby space as a womb or egg. He blocked 70% of the entrance with a huge white balloon, recalling Paik’s utterance at a concert, “Creep into the vagina of a living whale”. Another evidence to see the venue as the womb is the ruined temple of Delphi, on the slope of Mount Parnassus, deriving from ‘delph’ meaning a hole or ‘Delphi’ meaning a womb. In Paik’s art the egg is the spring of life and connected with the world. We thus call the womb a matrix. Paik also exhibited Autobiography in the Womb at a posthumous art show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Following this, it seems Paik was captivated in youth by the theme of birth from eggs. When he threw an egg at a wall of the Freiburg Conservatory is well known. He also threw eggs at his first concert.
2. That’s interesting. Did Paik call himself a shaman?
Paik said “While working, I remain unconscious. I am profoundly influenced by a shaman, or mudang.” A shaman is one who deals with the light generating the rhythms of existence and throb of life. Surprisingly, the fact that light consists of electromagnetic waves was found in the late 19th century. Electromagnetic waves are the essential substance forming the universe, which is believed to escape from even a black hole against its tremendous gravity. Like DNA radiating light, and the planets pouring out light when exploding, Paik’s TV works made use of an inner flash of light, without using reflected sunlight. This is antithetical to ‘the theory of visual perception’ European art history is based on. More concretely, Gestalt theory lies in the context of the theory of visual perception. Video work using a beam projection is its extension. Paik’s video relies on the opposite principles of this context. In other words, Paik’s work is completely different to Bill Viola’s in terms of the structure of reason.
One Japanese scholar suggests DNA releases protons. I think this assertion is very interesting, as Paik’s theory of the universe aligns with this claim. The inventor of TV Philo Farnsworth said TV is a gift from God. So isn’t the electromagnetic wave God also? The electromagnetic wave travels 300,000 km per second even through a vacuum. As it consists of gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves, and others, there are many Gods within it. Humankind has fundamentally transformed civilization by using electromagnetic waves for half a century. Paik, understood this transformation in the arts, based on its movement in phenomena, whether natural or artificial. I would like to call such a figure a neo-shaman.
3. You’re saying Paik was a shaman. A shaman is a being bridging heaven and earth. This includes being possessed with the spirit and performing a gut (shamanic rituals). What are shamanic elements in Paik’s early work?
Paik’s early performances are all modifications of shamanic rituals. Paik stated “Media is a concept of medieval theology that signifies the means of communication with God, a type of vehicle of intercourse. The etymology of the word ‘gut’ traces back to the Mongolian term ‘uhl’ (the spirit itself) thereby the same meaning applies to the term media and gut.” Let me give an example: named after the Köchel-Verzeichnis of the works of Mozart, Paik’s first robot K-456 refers to paradise. Paik performed a ritual with this robot being hit by a car, wailing its death. He also offered a white woman to the robot Tatar as a sacrifice, and performed a shamanic ritual before the public when his comrade Joseph Beuys died. These shamanic elements are significant and appear consistently in his art.
4. Many studies to link Paik’s art to ancient shamans have been conducted, but no icons in his art as shamanic elements have been discovered. As Joseph Beuys was recued by a shaman Tatar who healed his wounds with folk remedies, we can bridge his art directly to a shamanic element. Which shamanic element can we find in Paik’s art?
We can say Beuys intentionally made a legend. A question is which significant role Paik had in making such a story. Before then, Beuys’ work was conventional. We can say studies into Paik’s art just began in that we need more surveys and investigation into Paik’s materials. I think we are living in the galaxy of concepts derived from Paik’s eggs. This is similar to Marcel Duchamp who produced a variety of concepts after the Industrial Revolution. Paik is a figure who discovered another entrance to a new galaxy. In the ancient world people called the place where they observed the galaxy ‘budo’, which is known as the common term around the world.
A Tungus shaman call refers to ‘budo’ as ‘panaputu’ in which ‘pana’ means a shadow of the soul and ‘ptu’ means a vessel containing the soul. It is linked to the image of lamplight, candlelight, and a mirror. I consider this a key to elucidating Paik’s art. To put it simply, you may think of an empty TV set with a glimmering candlelight (shadow of the soul). The bull-head Paik hung over the gallery entrance is for a gut, and an observatory as well as ‘panaputu’, a passageway to the external world. Paik considered the electromagnetic wave discovered in the 19th century the soul within nature, and saw the CRT black-and-white monitor as vessel of the soul.
As TV plays the role of a mirror, it has a meaning identical with ‘Toli’, a Mongolian shaman’s copper mirror. His TV scenes with swiftly changing images feel like images stirred in liquid. It is said ‘sam’ in Tungus means ‘stirring liquid’. TV sets seem closely associated with the functional, religious meaning of ‘toli’, put on Mongolian shaman’s costumes or the chest of warriors. This mirror has nothing to do with the perspective (for example, of Rosalind Krauss) relating videos to the Narcissus myth in which Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in water before drowning.
The shaman mirror of the northern nomads is not to see something but to protect themselves by reflecting strong light. For shamans, the mirror is also a vessel containing the soul. It is also a matrix device bearing the meaning of eggs and womb. In The Blue Cliff Record (Byeokamrok) Paik made a scroll work with the story of a pagoda without form. Paik’s bullhead and Buddha head are symbolic of a budo, an astronomic observatory in the shamanism era. It role is now replaced with a satellite. In this sense, Good Morning Mr. Owell is a masterpieces representing the age of neo-shamanism.
5. If so, what connections does Paik’s work have before figuring out the electromagnetic wave?
At the first concert, Paik pulled down a piano, and ran around shouting at the audience. As he shouted in a language the audience could not understand, he cast a spell. He threw eggs, bled from the hand when breaking glass, brought a scooter to the stage, and started its engine. When the audiences became puzzled, Paik called to his friend Mari Baumeister in the auditorium and informed him the performance was finished. Important here is Paik used a telephone to communicate over a distance. Antonin Artaud, French dramatist and theoretician of the Surrealist movement, known for his theater of cruelty said, “In Europe no one knows how to shout. In the theater, forgetting the existence of the body, performers forget how to use the voice. French performers know only how to say.” At the time Paik played the role of bringing vitality to the theater. He was considered avant-garde with nicknames such as ‘swirling in the art world’ and ‘a cultural terrorist’.
6. Why did Paik use the scooter in his performance? Paik also used newspapers, magazines, radio, and television in his early concerts and exhibitions. What was his intention here?
Paik avidly read the newspaper, and regarded rumor, the horses, telegrams, telephone, TV, video, and laser as telecommunication mediums. Important is Paik’s media art originated from these. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, the advanced form of the newspaper is not the book but TV. Recently I realized by chance Paik’s intention with the scooter. Scythia refers to ‘one shooting at the horse’ that is ‘an archer’. The scooter was used as a metaphor for the horse. It is known that a riding stirrup was developed by the Huns. From the Huns ‘deified heaven’ was called ‘Tengri’, different from a normal sky, the origin of Dangun. Through the work, Electronic Superhighway-Venice to Ulan Bator displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1993 Paik became the khan (the term also originated from the Huns) of media art. This work’s point is his conception goes back to the Steppe Road of the Mongolian Empire. Before the sea routes of the late 15th century, the Steppe Road was the longest route linking the continents. Paik’s electronic superhighway is a globalized highway prefiguring the advent of the information age.
7 . How do we get rid of a general misunderstanding on shamanism?
I think we need the aspiration for our ancient history to understand shamanism academically. At school we learn philosophy with a 2,500-year history since it first appeared in Greece, while myths have a history of about 30,000 years. If the essence of Judaism and Christianity is a vast abyss and an atypical interchange between man and God, we refer to the time when nature and God become gods and exchanges with man as the age of myth. Paik stated, “There has been almost nothing progressed in the world of wolves.” People understand the world as a wildlife state in myth, but they attempt contact with a transcendental sphere through shamanism.
The two coexist in a primitive society, but when society is enlarged and a nation is established, shamanism expands rapidly. According to scholars there is a functional relation between rapid progress in science and abnormal development of shamanism. This could be a very interesting theme for study. The expansion of shamanism was first made in Asia’s ancient states, as seen in the mergence of an Iranian-Scythian nomadic state with the highly developed technology of metallurgy. Tangun, as Scythian King, is one of his robot pieces submitted to Venice Biennale. The Gojoeseon period when Tangun lived was a nomadic age before the Agricultural Age when people possessed their own private property. We have to grasp Paik’s art by grafting thoughts on this age onto present time. We need to understand Paik saw TVs as mirrors and vessels containing shadows of the soul, and a stupa bridging all the visible and invisible.
8. Did Paik comment on Antonin Artaud, the Surrealist theater director? What concern did Paik show for the body? In art, performance has become banal. How about in Paik’s case?
Antonin Artaud seems to be a significant figure for Paik. Artaud discovered primitive creativity in Balinese Theater. Such spectacle theaters as Balinese Theater have an aspect of getting rid of artificial acting, dandyism, and amusement. These are like religious rituals and similar to shamanic rituals in the East. Thought directed by gestures, mental states explored by gesture, and a bizarre, provocative atmosphere indicated by gestures are like “shamanistic rituals to ward off devils”, as Artaud suggested. Paik underscored the body and called his music ‘physical music’. (He called a music concert ‘pure theater’ or ‘moving theater’.) It means to draw out vibrations in human tissues through physical action. Paik wanted viewers to operate and feel all kinds of musical vibrations and electromagnetic waves through their body tissue. Paik’s music, away from tonality, is a spring of sound art.
Paik’s TV work has interesting features except from its interactivity. American cosmo-physicists discovered marks of the Big Bang, which occurred 13.7 billion years ago, in white noise from CRT TV monitors. This is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation theory with which American radio astronomers garnered the Nobel Prize. Snowflake-like white dots are fossils of the Big Bang. This theory was released two years after Paik’s first solo show in which Paik showcased manipulation of electromagnetic waves using 13 TV monitors. At the time Paik seemed to know the presence of electromagnetic waves spread through the universe. As Paik understood that mystic news (the gospel) dwells in the ‘non-gravity’ information of white noise, he looked at the monitors filled with white noise for over 30 minutes. His emphasis was not just for play. For Paik who liked Oscar Wilde’s assertion, “All truths are the truth of masks,” humor carries truth.
In Greek mythology, the infant Hermes devoured 50 cattle by deceiving Apollo with humor and wit. Hanging a bull-head at his first solo show, Paik synthesized diverse conceptions from many artists. This infant Hermes is the god of electronic waves, communication, nomads, strangers, and even thieves. He is also the god of creation and invention. As Michel Serres stated, Paik is one of key figures in the age of Hermes. Asked, “Will Genghis Khan re-emerge in this age?” Gilles Deleuze replied, “He will come to many cities around the world, not to grassland, in a wide variety of different forms.”
9. Paik jokingly said the next powerhouse of art will be Bulgaria, as gypsies there practice telecommunication through telepathy didn’t he? Was telepathy an ultimate mode of communication for him?
Paik conceived of a TV Set for the Blind. He was captivated by electromagnetic waves throughout his life. The whale sings and looks for counterparts in the deep sea by using electromagnetic waves. A whale is like a TV set. It is absolutely right if we say Paik wanted to become ‘a baby whale’. The Evolution Theory argues human species appeared at the last stage of evolution of the whale. It is said the fact that we came from the sea is in our unconsciousness. As the child Einstein imagined where to reach with light, Paik dreamed of traveling the infinite universe with electromagnetic waves. A little prince who landed on the Mongolian grassland at midnight – he is Paik. Beuys was a member of a Nazi combat bomber which crushed into the Crimea, a Mongolian land. Where are they now?
10. Thank you for talking to me Lee Young-cheol. I now understand many new aspects of Nam Jun Paik. I am so pleased to have lots of new things to study.
Paik defined his art as ‘negative science-fiction’, saying we need imagination to return to the primitive era. Paik was an outstanding writer. I hope you have a good time reading his remarkable writing. The Nam Jun Paik Renaissance comes near. Can you hear it?
(This interview was edited from a four-hour talk.)