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(posted on 2012-06-03)
Nam June Paik is the pioneer of video art. The Korean-born New York musician, performance artist and sculptor got a Sony portable video recorder in 1965 and began making pieces that were radical, avant-garde and shown on television sets.
One of Paik’s masterpieces, 1973’s “Global Groove,” is on view at the Sheldon Museum of Art through Sept. 9 in “Turning Inside Out.” That’s the title of Sheldon’s biennial invitational exhibition, this year featuring videos by Paik; Joan Jonas, another video pioneer; and Jennifer Steinkamp, one of today’s top video artists.
Steinkamp is represented by “Madame Curie 1,” a 4-minute-30-second 2011 digital video inspired by Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. From a biography, Steinkamp discovered Curie also was an avid flower gardener.
The flowers that Curie grew became the basis for the video. Steinkamp digitally rendered the flowers and turned them into a flowing curtain that fills the first-floor gallery wall from edge to edge. Moving in colorful layers, daisies slide across the screen over a tree branch with yellow flowers, and blue buds pop up over vines, etc. The effect is entrancing.
Jonas’ contribution is “Vertical Roll,” a 19- minute-38-second, black-and-white film that takes its name from technical difficulties experienced with television sets in the '60s and '70s when the picture would “roll” with black bars repeatedly coming up across the screen.
Jonas uses those black bars, which go by every second, to create a fractured, disorienting look at “Organic Honey,” her alter ego -- a seductive TV personality who moves about in front of the camera, marching, jumping rope, modeling a two-piece bejeweled dancer’s outfit and simply looking into the camera.
A study of the female body and critique of television imagery of women, “Vertical Roll” is a piece of its time. But it remains effective, with a percussive track of a spoon hitting a table filling the gallery with sound and adding to the dislocation of the bars.
Now for the Paik.
“Global Groove” opens with a narrator stating "This is a glimpse of the video landscape of tomorrow, when you will be able to switch to any TV station on earth and TV Guide will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.”
That didn’t exactly happen. But Paik’s video collage, which puts together a dozen excerpts from his previous works and other sources, was predictive of our media-saturated, increasingly global cultural. It’s also a stunning work of its time, making full use of '60s/early '70s technology to create visual effects.
The piece opens with a pair of dancers, one of whom, Pamela Sousa, appears on and off throughout the 28-minute-30-second video. They’re gyrating to Mitch Ryder’s “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” which plays with the video, changing colors, switching to outlines, etc.
Next comes Allen Ginsberg playing tiny Tibetan cymbals and chanting “Om Ah Hung,” again with psychedelic colors. The video then switches to cellist Charlotte Moorman. A frequent Paik collaborator, she is playing the “TV Cello,” which he invented by running strings across TV sets, while Alan Shulman plays his cello on screen and beside her.
Moorman returns later in the video, "playing" Paik’s back with her bow in a piece called “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” that is reflective of the duo’s performance art and the playfulness at its core.
The video takes an international turn with a Japanese Pepsi commercial, Korean dancer and later a female percussionist who plays hanging drums as the green-screen background rapidly changes. There also are bits of dancers from various cultures, including a Nigerian piece near the end of the video.
Other elements include avant-garde composer and musician John Cage reading into the camera, a burlesque fan dancer working to the boogie woogie of “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar” and a “mashup” before there was such a word -- a Navajo woman plays a drum and chants, intercut with rock ‘n’ roll.
“Global Groove” is post-modernist, cross-cultural, technologically innovative and, most of all, entertaining. I’ve seen it before and was thrilled to watch it again on the TV in Sheldon’s small, second-floor Focus Gallery.
By itself, Paik’s seminal work makes “Turning Inside Out” a success, and the Jonas and Steinkamp pieces only add to the experience. It’s well worth an hour to watch them all. But if you don’t want to devote that much time, be sure to see “Global Groove.”