The first room says it all. By which I mean it shows you all the work by Nam June Paik you need to understand his contribution to modern art. There you will see, among other things, his masterpiece: TV Garden, an array of different-sized monitors embedded among greenery, their multicoloured screens blossoming like flowers in a gorgeous electronic pastoral.
The more you think about this installation, the more insidiously provocative it is. Paik, who died in 2006 at the age of 73, was a polymath philosopher who prophesied our technological age. In 1974, he predicted the coming of an “electronic super highway” that would link everyone on Earth. Move over, Tim Berners-Lee. In 1994, when his vision was coming true, Paik celebrated it with a work called Internet Dreams, in which multiple ever-changing screens glory in information overload.
Tate Modern’s retrospective of this Korean-born American visionary should be a blast of futuristic beauty, but instead it smothers Paik in seriousness. Trying to make him more than he was simply turns him into less.
The power of Paik’s art lies in its lightheartedness. His message is that TV unites us and the journey to the future is sheer bliss. I treasure the memory of seeing his work Electronic Superhighway in a gallery on Canal Street in New York. This huge map of the US glowed with optimism: it seemed to perfectly reflect the city around it, from neon bar signs to the twin towers of the World Trade Center standing tall in a perfect blue sky.
Paik’s gleeful beauty gets buried in this doomed attempt to turn him into a mighty modern artist on the scale of, say, Robert Rauschenberg. After that teasing glimpse of his magical way with video, you have to drag yourself through room after room, each revisiting his early career as a member of the international 1960s group Fluxus in impenetrable detail. To read every single poster, flyer and magazine – all assiduously assembled in vitrines and dwelling on long-forgotten happenings in Darmstadt – would take a lifetime. And I’ve got TV to watch.
It’s not that Fluxus was boring. It’s just that you clearly had to be there. It must have been hilarious to witness Paik’s performance Etude for Piano Forte in 1960 at Atelier Mary Bauermeister, with iconoclastic composer John Cage in the audience. After playing Chopin, Paik, who trained in classical composition, produced a pair of scissors and cut off Cage’s tie.
They became friends, Cage’s ideas dovetailing with the Fluxus movement. In the 1950s, far-thinking musicians and artists rediscovered the then-forgotten, but still cheekily alive, Marcel Duchamp – in particular, his belief that art could be made by chance. Cage and the Fluxus crew used random instructions, obstacles and interruptions to make art. Or sometimes they just had a laugh. Paik once connected a dildo to an old gramophone and put it in his mouth so he could feel music through his jawbone.
That’s funny to read about, almost 60 years on, but hard to make sense of from the relics here. I just wish Tate Modern would curb its obsession with the extremely elusive history of Fluxus. There’s too much of it in its free collection and too much in this show.
One early work, in the Paik show, is mysteriously moving in a way that exposes the ephemerality of a lot of the stuff around it. Paik’s Prepared Piano from 1962-63 is what survives of a series of instruments to which he added objects along lines inspired by Cage. Its upright wooden body is deliberately scratched and battered, its keys covered in strange stains. It is sad and pungent. It has become, over the past six decades, a great sculpture.
Maybe great art has to contain something tragic. Yet Paik only let in tragedy by accident. His Prepared Piano is reminiscent of the art of another friend of his who keeps intruding memorably, and destructively, in this show. Joseph Beuys was, like Paik, a member of Fluxus – but he turned the movement’s cerebral fixations into something more expressive and a lot more melancholy.
In Paik’s exhibition of prepared pianos, the audience were invited to interact: Beuys physically attacked one of them. Great, said Paik, or words to that effect. Paik would almost certainly have been nicer to know – a gregarious collaborator with an optimistic outlook. But in a room dedicated to their friendship, the Nosferatu-like Beuys steals the show. In a performance in which Beuys howls like a coyote to Paik’s piano accompaniment you can’t help fixating on the former Stuka pilot’s burn scars and inhuman grunts into the mic.
Only time, decay and the sublime sustain great art like that of Beuys. The contrast is damning. In his inexhaustible belief in progress, Paik threw himself into technological experiments that simply elicit a shrug today. When, in the late 1960s, he worked at Bell Laboratories, then the most cutting-edge computer research centre around, he produced the most ambitious digital artwork anyone had yet come up with: a dot moving on a screen.
Tate Modern obsessively assembles all Paik’s pioneering yet archaic experiments, including his use of magnets to distort images on 1960s TV screens by interfering with cathode-ray tubes. Anyone remember them?
It’s a shame to see Paik so exposed, just through undue reverence. His finest art is completely alive and of our moment. Paik at his best revealed the wonder of our stupid world. In Bye Bye Kipling, a global broadcast originally transmitted live in 1986 with a Boston TV station, a Russian rockabilly punk band perform with Glasnost abandon while, back in the US, an alien visitor watches the proceedings to decide if humanity deserves to exist. The entire programme is addictive in the same way as TV itself. I watched it for so long, I forgot to read the Fluxus memorabilia.
At Tate Modern, London, from 17 October to 9 February.