Rediscovering Paik: A Chat with Smithsonian Curator John G. Hanhardt

The following excerpts are from a March 31, 2011 Washington City Paper discussion about the Nam June Paik Archives between John G. Hanhardt and the Paper’s John Anderson.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the archives in 2009 and plans to dedicate an exhibition to them in 2012. Hanhardt and reporter John Anderson discussed the museum’s commitment to Paik and the history of the moving image, the difficulties of presenting media art, and the upcoming show. Washington City Paper: Since a personal relationship often springs from a professional relationship, how well did you know Paik?

John Hanhardt: I knew him very well from the early 1970s, and I was privileged to be engaged in his work and to include his work in numerous exhibitions. I traveled with him to Germany where he introduced me to many of his colleagues and friends. I would visit him and his wife, Shigeko [Kubota], in his loft and studio. We were in active personal communication and spent time together. After his stroke I visited him very shortly thereafter in the hospital, and flew down to Miami, frequently, to see him. I spent time with him regularly until the end. A lot of our conversations were about projects, because he was always working on things: whether it was developing a satellite television project, or a video tape, or a sculpture. Some of those projects were discussed because I was involved in them as a curator and some of those things we discussed were because he wanted me to know about them.

John Anderson, Washington City Paper: Now that you've been looking through the archives for the past few years, I was curious what you may have learned about Nam June Paik in terms of his work, and about him, that you might not have learned otherwise from your professional and personal relationships with him.

JH: That's an interesting question. As I said, I used to visit him in his studios. When I organized his retrospective at the Whitney in 1982, we pulled a lot of material together. He was an artist that really didn't take care of his papers; they were in piles and in corners. I was aware of a lot of this material. Toward the end of his life he told me many times that he wanted me to organize a new edition of his writings.

From looking at his archives I could see that he was very aware of how he was being viewed and interpreted. He kept clippings, correspondence with curators, museums and galleries. One of the things that keeps coming up is how favorably he was reviewed at that time, by the TV critic of The New York Times, John O’Connor. He appreciated Nam June’s work. And Nam June kept clippings of his reviews. John O’Connor passed away a little over a year ago, and his partner put a little show together of Nam June’s letters and notes to him! I spoke to Seymour Borofsky and he is donating those papers to the archive. So, the more people that hear about the archive, as a generation passes on, these materials are coming to light and are being brought to the Nam June Paik Archive at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Nam June collected lots of toys, antiques: He was constantly buying things that he could imagine incorporating into his art work. We are also finding a number of audio tapes and video tapes, and the big issue for us is archival preservation and organization because it is a vast trove of material that needs to be organized in order to be really looked at in a meaningful way. And, that’s really what’s been occupying us is making order out of this. We’re close to getting there and it will become the center of a Nam June Paik Media Arts Center where his work can be studied by scholars, artists, and curators. It’s a very exciting plan.

And, if you'll allow me to jump around, we have the recently opened Media Art Gallery and the Watch This! exhibition, and American Art is making a real commitment to time-based art, not only to representing Nam June, which they have done spectacularly with the exhibition and preservation of Megatron/Matrix and Electronic Super Highway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, but also with videotapes and installations, as well as contemporary directions in the art of the moving image. WCP: One thing that strikes me is that I cannot think of a lot of major galleries that are dedicating this much space to multiple works of the moving image.

There aren’t many museums that put work like this together in a single exhibition. There may be temporary shows but it is the American Art Museum’s sustained, serious and long term commitment that is so exciting. Betsy Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, made a real commitment to Nam June Paik and wants to recognize the importance of the moving image in late Twentieth Century art by expanding the Museum’s collection. The rewards have been enormous attendance, interest from students in the area, as well as from colleagues around the country, and we have gotten nice response in the DC press. So it is very gratifying.

WCP: Returning to the Paik archive, you're preparing an exhibition for that in 2012.

JH: Yes. Its working title is Nam June Paik: Art and Process, which identifies what I like to represent, which is both the materials the artist worked with, from the archive, as well as texts of writing that will relate his work to his ideas: that there was an idea and a process he went through to create his pieces. And we will have loans of his pieces not seen so often in this part of the United States: some from Europe, as well as other parts of this country. So, it's going to be a very focused show, with clusters recognizing groups of work: video for television, video for essays, performance and music. We want to create a mix of all of this to show his working method. I want to make it a very inviting show. I don't want to make it overly pedantic. It's sort of a process of discovery going through and seeing his different ways of working and realizing that what a large accomplishment his work was, how it embraced so many facets of the moving Image.

You know, I really do feel that 20th century art history is going to be rewritten through the moving image: from film to video and television, to video games, interactive platforms, the Internet. All the arts—whether literature, poetry, dance, sculpture—have changed because of these media as art forms. The whole telling of stories has changed remarkably through the impact of cinema and television and all of these moving image discourses. And they’ve also become art forms themselves, not only as classical cinema but as avant garde film practice, documentary, narrative, video art, installation and performance all throughout the 20th century. The very exciting access to a global history of the moving image through the Internet as well as the mobility of the artist to work and create digitally in a variety of forms and through diverse media platforms. It is really the new paper, the new printing press. However you want to look at it! That changed how we saw information. I do think that artists give us new ways to see ourselves and see the world around us, it is at the center of art history. And Nam June certainly achieved that transformation of video through his art making. Making in the process a lasting contribution to art history.

And, I think the big challenge for museums is are they going to become how they can exhibit and represent that history of the moving image and place it alongside the other arts. As we look to the future of a global media culture how will the museum become a living, changing place for seeing this complex variety of art practices. In a small way, I think that's what American Art Museum is trying to address with its major commitment to Nam June Paik—there is no other museum that has on display work of such scale that has been restored by the museum. Those two big pieces! [Megatron/Matrix and Electronic Super Highway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii] We take it for granted in Washington, but it is really stunning. And it is very important. And that is what attracted the archive here to the American Art Museum.