'Buddha' by Nam June Paik, 1989. © Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: EnBW/ Steffen Harms
The late Nam June Paik is South Korea's most famous contemporary artist, as well as something of a prophet. His predictions in the 1960s and 70s that technology would lead to an 'electronic superhighway', that we would live in a multi-screen culture, and his endeavours 'to create a global harmony through democratic visual culture' led Paik to become the pioneering interactive, sound and video artist of his day.
A current show, running between Liverpool's Tate Gallery and FACT - the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology - represents the first retrospective of the Korean-born artist, who died in 2006, in the UK. It's a large, cohesive and engaging display of Paik's work, and just in case anyone should fail to notice its presence, a giant laser is being beamed across the city between the two sites for the duration of the show.
Born in Seoul in 1932, Paik trained as a classical musician, finishing his studies in Germany, where he hooked up with a group of avant gardistes, (among them musician John Cage and artist Joseph Beuys), who called themselves the Fluxus group. Together, they performed musical 'happenings', using instruments made of found objects, pianos that played pre-programmed random sounds. They experimented with early 'scratching' and, on one occasion, Beuys destroyed the piano on stage, while on another, in 1967, Paik's muse, cellist Charlotte Moorman, stripped while playing her cello. She and Paik were arrested for indecency.
The group's aim was to create 'anti music', to challenge the bourgeois conventions of classical music, and to encourage audience involvement. Paik predicted, rightly, that audience participation would soon become part of the performance.
In 1964, Paik moved to New York and shifted his focus to electronic art, declaring 'without electricity, there can be no art.' He bought a video recorder and started to create pieces in which TV is the medium, and used it to bombard the audience with hectic, rapidly changing images. The result, in pieces such as 'TV Garden', for which 60 monitors showing scrambled footage are set among 260 plants, is pure sensory overload.
But Paik also used technology to more meditative ends. In 'TV Candle', a camera films, manipulates and projects the flame of a slow burning candle on to a wall. It's beautiful and peaceful. His obsession with TVs led him to create a 'TV chair', 'TV cellos', even a 'Robot Family', in which he made everyone from grandparents to babies from TV sets.
While the bulk of the show is at the Tate, one of Paik's most impressive works is at FACT. 'Laser' Cone, created in 2001 in what was the artist's post-video phase, consists of a giant cone onto which are beamed fast, ever-changing patterns created by lasers. Visitors can lie under the cone and stare at the patterns. The effect is meditative and hypnotising, and proves that, despite old age and poor health, a partially-paralysed Paik fully understood that by the Noughties, graphics had moved on from not only creating, but also being part of, the experience.