East Contemporary

Nam June Paik Art Center: “Wake Up! It’s 2024” + “Big Brother Blockchain”

Yongin, March 21, 2024 – August 18, 2024 (Blockchain) / February 23, 2025 (Wake Up), https://njp.ggcf.kr

This was my third visit to the Nam June Paik Art Center (after 2012 and 2013). One decade later, the exhibition titles are new, but I was greeted by the same TV garden, the same Paik robot, the same TV Buddha and the same TV aquarium. Time seems to stand still in the Nam June Paik Art Center.

According to the curatorial statements, the “current” shows are focused on celebrating the 40th anniversary of Good Morning Mr. Orwell, a Nam June Paik organized real-time satellite broadcast of a set of performances by well-known contemporary artists of the time.

Nam June Paik “Good Morning Mr. Orwell”

The only new non-NJP artwork added to the ground floor “Wake Up” show was a contemporary remake of a “real time” show by Balming Tiger X Sungsil Ryu. A couple of teenagers doing gymnastics routines in an empty park (“peace exercises”) and a parody of a death metal band from some empty college auditorium, all wrapped up in some nice TV news style motion graphics.

The second floor of the museum – the “Big Brother Blockchain” show – featured works by contemporary (mostly Korean) artists. International contributions came from Samson Young (Hong Kong) and Hito Steyerl (Germany). All works contained more or less direct references (“inspiration”) to Paik’s satellite broadcast. The curatorial text referring to blockchain was quite out of place. This had nothing to do with blockchains or cryptography. It was all good old video art, not much different from 40 years ago.

I appreciated that most of the exhibited artworks on the upper floor were new and by a new generation of Korean artists. Samson Young’s work also appeared to be a new comission.

Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun was a work I first saw at Gwangju biennnale in 2016, loaned to NJP from the vaults of MMCA. It was the oldest work in the show, obviously added to have some “famous name” on the list.

Unfortunately a lot of the artworks took a very direct and literal approach to incorporating elements of Paiks work, e.g. music and dance → music and dance, livestream → livestream, etc. The processes deployed were all quite straightforward and over-obvious. Often I wondered to what extent the artists were serious and to what extent they were just making fun of the probably strict directions drawn in the commissioning agreements. Did the artists just cave in to the curators uninventive direction to literarily transpose the original NJP concepts into a “contemporary” version, delivered a “NJP inspired artwork” as required and cashed in their check?

Given the example of Hito Steyerl (a pre-existing work), I suspect the issue here is really the curation of the show. Steyerl’s work in itself is great. But juxtaposing NJPs music/dance broadcast and Steyerl’s music/dance “broadcast” style video based on their visual similarities shows a very superficial approach to curating that does not at all give justice to the multilayered meaning of the works. (Which is, in my opinion close to opposite: NJP’s 1980s new media enthusiasm and HS’s post-2010s disillusioned nihilism). Given the same selection method was applied to all artworks (maybe except Jo Seungho’s), it kind of diminished the overall impression, even though the individual works were in fact all good.

The “Blockchain” show had the potential for a great show, but it unfortunately remained an unrealized potential. The ghost of Nam June Paik and the slavish attempts to “keep his spirit alive” seem to be a hard limit to the ability to step into the present and future.

Hong Minki
Hong Minki feat. Nam June Paik
Chang Seo Young
Jo Seungho
Jo Seungho

The Nam June Paik Art Center should consider renaming itself the Nam June Paik Art Mausoleum, if it’s not able to create a sufficient level of creative freedom for the curators and artists alike. I imagine that even NJP would be in favor this kind of freedom, if he indeed was such a great artist as he is claimed to be by those Korean institutions claiming to “keeping his spirit alive”.

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