Ghost in the Machine

Ken Hakuta P ’98, ’00, and ’02 takes the Sidwell Friends community along for a tour of the new Nam June Paik retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A mesmerizing riot of sights and sounds, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Nam June Paik brings together more than 200 works by the visionary experimental artist who bridged art, music, performance, and technology in groundbreaking ways, and whose influence is still felt in the art, pop culture, music, and film of today. This exhibition—the artist’s first-ever West Coast retrospective—celebrates Paik, who transcended genres and traditions, while also highlighting the artist’s innovative, playful, and profoundly radical work, including his iconic television pieces.

The Sidwell Friends community was invited to a virtual discussion of the exhibit led by Ken Hakuta P ’98, ’00, and ’02, the nephew of the artist (who was once his legal guardian) and executor of his estate, along with Rudolf Frieling, the curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Early in the presentation, Frieling shared the image of Paik’s work “July 20,” in which the artist places his 1932 birthday in a brief timeline of sorts, showing what else happened on that day (July 20, 1928 was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s birthday, the day of the 1969 moon landing, and the day German soldier Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944).

“Politics, culture, personal biography, and the history of technology—all of that is within Nam June’s mind,” Frieling says.

Paik’s interest in technology is consistently interwoven throughout his body of work; Frieling says he is “arguably the inventor of the whole genre we call video art, or what we now call media art.” The new exhibit at SFMOMA has used technology to bring to life new ways of looking at some of Paik’s work. In 1962, Paik proposed a concert: A pianist in San Francisco would play the left hand of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Another pianist, this one located in Shanghai, would play the right hand part. They would begin at exactly noon Greenwich Mean Time, using a metronome, and the two parts would be simultaneously broadcast over the radio.

“This was a mind game in 1962—something you would never dream of executing” says Frieling. “Today, it’s a piece of cake.” So on September 17 of this year, SFMOMA made it happen. “This is not about the precision we so love in Bach. This is about the imperfection, the unforeseen, about two different minds, two different bodies, two different locations.” The advancement of technology—and 18 months spent on Zoom calls and video conferences—now allows audiences to see Paik’s work in ways the artist himself could only imagine.

“Everyone in our family thought he was completely crazy,” Hakuta says. “Nobody really understood what he was doing.” But the avant-garde artist was an amazing uncle in Hakuta’s estimation because he encouraged his nephew to watch television. “We had the first television set in our neighborhood!”

Hakuta notes that Paik had a deep understanding of commercialization and slick messaging—which he intentionally inverted in his work. “Imperfection is part of his art—and that’s the sophistication,” Hakuta says. “A perfectly functioning robot is not as sophisticated as one that malfunctions randomly.” And it’s much less interesting!

Watch the full virtual discussion here.

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