The Nam June Paik Archive is made up of materials the artist assembled over the years in the ordered chaos of his studios. Paik actively used his collections; many objects became part of artworks. Following the artist’s death, it took seven trailer trucks to transport his remaining collections to Washington, D.C.
Nam June Paik appreciated toys for their shapes and colors and for their nostalgic resonance. Paik participated in the Fluxus movement during the 1960s and found a link between its aesthetic and the naïve, poetic qualities of toys. George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, employed old-fashioned styles of lettering; he also assembled objects that brought the everyday into playful combinations. Paik saw toys as a way to place recognizable shapes in unexpected juxtapositions in his sculptures and installations. He collected toys that referred to television, such a plastic TV viewer, and to transportation, such as cars, planes, and bicycles. Paik incorporated images of airplanes in flight into several videos, including one of ice skaters that he made for the 1980 Olympics.
Paik's signature robots include Robot K-456 from 1964, a remote-controlled figure made out of wire and metal. Paik used the remote-control device developed by video engineer Shuya Abe in improvised performances, such as the "accident" he presented in 1982 in front of the Whitney Museum. Family of Robot: Baby, 1986, and Merce/Digital, 1988, are expressive of the human body; Merce also celebrates Paik's friend, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. The artist also completed robots in his studio in 1992 and 2005. Family of Robot, which included Grandmotherand Grandfather, is directly linked to Robot K-456 and its staged "accident", which Paik included in his videotape, Living with the Living Theatre, 1989.
After studying music in Korea and Tokyo, Paik began to participate in the avant-garde music scene and performance-art movement in Europe during the 1950s. Pages from one of his early scores, Omnibus Music No. 1, 1961, are in the Paik Archive. Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German innovator in electronic music, said that when on stage, Paik would run the arm of a record player over the grooves of a record to create sounds, while playing audiotapes that he had mixed. Paik's fascination with sound (and moving-image) reproduction is evident in Media Sandwich, 1961-64, as well as the interactive Random Access and Random Access Schallplattenschaschlik, created for his first solo show, Exposition of Music-Electronic Television, held in 1963 in Wuppertal, Germany. Prepared Piano, about 1962-63, also from that exhibition, shows how Paik attacked and transformed a traditional instrument. In the performance Violin with String, 1961-65, he dragged a violin on the ground behind him. Paik acquired a Sony Port-a-Pak in 1964, which allowed him to shoot videotape and record sound. The Paik Archive houses a collection of Paik videotapes as well as many Edison recording cylinders. Paik no doubt collected them to incorporate into his art.
Nam June Paik was captivated by record players and the technology for amplifying sound. He brought speakers and turntables of all models, sizes, and shapes into his studio, then used the equipment in performances and interactive audio pieces, which he later incorporated into artworks. He created a “new music” using recording equipment, that can be seen in his 1975 performance performance in which he played and smashed records on the record player.
Broadcast radio, a forerunner of television, delivered information and cultural programming to diverse audiences. Like the television set, the radio took on many shapes and functioned as a centerpiece of the home. We can compare the domestic role of the piano–around which people gather to enjoy music–to that of the radio, which drew families together to receive news, entertainment, and live reporting of sporting events. Paik transformed both forms: he altered the piano, as in Prepared Piano, about 1962–63, and joined radios to televisions in large-scale bridges and robots. He also reworked the technology of televisions and radios as part of his art making; his life-size Robot K-456, 1964, included radio components and was able to broadcast speeches by John F. Kennedy. The radios Paik used, from large consoles to portable hand-held transistors, represent many points in the history of broadcast technology.
Nam June Paik was interested in every stage of technological evolution and gathered all kinds of video technology into his studio. He used tripods to hold closed-circuit video cameras in TV Chair, 1968, TV Buddha, 1982, and other sculptures, and presented video imagery over various surfaces. He employed a wide variety of display technology, including computer screens. Paik also collected hardware for routing video and sound signals into his artwork. He experimented with the technology to understand how he could transform media and materials for his artistic ends, which is apparent in his plans for the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer, 1969-72, which he developed with engineer Shuya Abe. The Hewlett Packard wave generator demonstrates his interest in exploring abstraction in video, which he developed further with the Paik-Abe video synthesizer.
Paik is called the "father of video art" because he transformed video into an artist's medium. Paik's first solo exhibition in 1963 featured "prepared televisions". He altered the electronics to distort the broadcast image and placed the sets in the exhibition space to control the viewer's perception. Paik's later videotapes, such as Global Groove, foretold future directions in broadcast television. Paik seized on the concept of the video wall, a large display of televisions that would allow him to distribute moving images over large surfaces. Lyon Video Wall is an early example; two of Paik's more dramatic video walls are Fin de Siécle II, 1989, and Megatron/Matrix, 1995.
Nam June Paik collected birdcages for artworks that celebrated his friendship with John Cage, the influential avant-garde composer and teacher. The two enjoyed a long friendship after they met at a new music course in 1958 in Darmstadt, Germany. In his seminal composition 4’33”, 1952, Cage sat at a piano without playing for four-and-a-half minutes as the audience became aware of the "found sounds" of everyday life. Cage's work, which grew out of Marcel Duchamp's concept of the found object, profoundly influenced artists in the Fluxus movement as well as Paik, who also used found objects for his art. Cage in Cage in Cage featured a cage holding a monitor, which played an excerpt from Paik's celebration of his friend, A Tribute to John Cage, 1973.
Paik incorporated elements associated with traditional Asian culture, like the scroll, the Buddha, and martial arts into Untitled (Prepared Scroll), 1974, Whitney Buddha Complex, his installation from 1982, and other works. Paik loved popular culture; he appropriated a Japanese television commercial for Global Groove, 1973. He included martial arts figurines and other mass-produced items in the large-scale installation, Il pleure dans mon TV comme il pleut sur la ville, shown at the Galerie Beaubourg in Paris in 1990–91. A group of figurines in the Paik Archive highlights traditional poses in martial arts.
Nam June Paik's response to the classical music tradition was both playful and subversive. He featured Ludwig van Beethoven in an homage to classical music that included a piano set on fire and a melting bust of Beethoven. He also incorporated rock-and-roll from such groups as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels in his work. In Global Groove, 1973, Mitch Ryder's Devil with a Blue Dress On plays over image-processed dancers.
Paik began incorporating the Buddha into his art in the early 1970s. In TV Buddha of 1974, the Buddha contemplates himself through closed-circuit video. This unique feature of video distinguishes it from film. Paik explored point-of-view when the monitor showed what the camera was recording in real time. In TV Chair, he investigated the eternal presence of time, which he also evokes in the Whitney Buddha Complex from 1982, in which Buddha reflects on his own video image. The many Buddhas Paik bought in shops around the world demonstrate his interest in the form, which included making casts from the Buddhas in his collection.
Paik gathered a variety of objects, including fragments of architectural elements, sculptures from various folk traditions, and commercial decorations and souvenirs. They all inspired him or became parts of sculptures or installations. The large decorative elephant was used in his installation for the XLV Venice Biennial in 1993.
The Nam June Paik Archive holds many examples of materials the artist used in the planning stages of artworks. A cardboard template of Louisiana, which was part of a trial version of Electronic Superhighway, 1995, shows how Paik designed the layout of that installation. Joseph Beuys, a major postwar artist in Germany, visited Paik's first solo exhibition at the Galerie Parnass in 1963 and often performed with Paik. In one performance, Beuys attacked Paik's piano with an ax, contributing to Paik's reputation for challenging musical conventions. Paik created a mold of Beuys's signature hat and used it in various artworks celebrating the artist. Iconic robots were still in development late in the artist's life. Paik's Aimez-Vous Jimmy Stewart, 1994, which celebrated Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window (1954), included a dollhouse. An empty television case partially covered in clay is a work in progress. Paik used the shell of a television to fabricate a mold to make bronze televisions used in outdoor sculptures in San Diego.
Nam June Paik gave artworks as gifts to many of the artists he met on his travels and to curators and friends who supported him, and many artists gave their artwork to Paik. Italian glass, light, and video artist Federica Marangoni made a glass television, which she gave to Paik.
Nam June Paik enjoyed playing the piano—Claude Debussy's Claire de Lune was one of his favorite pieces. He continued to play following his stroke in 1996. For Modulation in Sync, installed in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum retrospective, The Worlds of Nam June Paik, laser artist Norman Ballard designed a projection onto the oculus of Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda so that Paik's performance on the organ controlled its abstract patterns.
Nam June Paik often expressed his innovative ideas through graphic arrangements of text that created haiku-like statements. Paik also painted throughout his career, making such works as the Opus Paintings. The elegant simplicity of the Untitled (Television) drawings and TV Clock reveal his minimalist aesthetics. His Untitled (Television) shows his ongoing interest in the television set as a means of creative and critical reflection. Paik read the daily newspaper voraciously, then used it to make drawings.