Renowned video artist Nam June Paik describes his first Miami artistic encounter with good humor. Back in 1987 he was invited to create an installation for Miami International Airport. Unfortunately his televisions took wing: "They stole half of my TVs," he laughs. Eastern Airlines, the project's original location, crashed financially, and the piece had to be moved to TWA's terminal, where it was placed near a bar. ("Water leaked onto my video," Paik quips.) The installation faced the wrong direction, so travelers often walked past without noticing it. Despite such obstacles, Paik concludes, "This whole tragicomedy was not useless...." On the contrary it led the long-time New York resident to purchase his South Beach condo, where he has wintered ever since.
It's unlikely anyone will make off with Paik's latest Miami installation: two large TV walls programmed with cuts of what the artist considers his "best," including some of that original MIA footage and videos made with a number of his collaborators, such as performance artist Laurie Anderson and choreographer Merce Cunningham. "Here you have a lot of pop stars," explains Paik, "but you have no chance to see the high-class people like Merce Cunningham, Laurie Anderson."
Paik's résumé is pretty high class, too. Some highlights: a 1982 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, last year's solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, a hefty reputation as the father of video art, and now the Miami Beach Festival of the Arts. If the last inclusion seems incongruous, organizers of the 27-year-old weekend exposition readily admit they got lucky. A member of the Beach's Fine Arts Board is an old friend of Paik and his wife, Shigeko Kubota, a noted video artist from the Sixties Fluxus movement.
"I love Miami, so the natural thing was to do something for the community," says Paik, who was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1932. Seated in the cozy oasislike garden of his four-story condominium building, Paik wears a white T-shirt printed with red Chinese characters. Not unlike the artist himself, who suffered a stroke in 1996, the print is somewhat worn, but the message is clear: "Eternity." Fitting for a man whose artistic vision and career show few signs of lagging.
Coming from a music and performance-art background, Paik delved into electronics in 1961 and, inspired by experimental composer John Cage, made history two years later with his first solo exhibition, "Exposition of Music-Electronic Television." Over the years he continued to manipulate, distort, reorient, and question the mass medium with pieces such as TV Garden and Concerto for TV Cello and Videotapes, subverting the all-powerful Cyclops of television with humor and irrational beauty.
At age 68 Paik, confined to a wheelchair, seems unable to do anything but look ahead. "Now I am more into lasers," he says, describing his fascination for creating, along with a group of other artists, giant interactive laser sculptures. His masterpieces of light will be shown this May in Spain's spectacular outpost of Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum. But Paik has still greater plans: "I'm thinking I may do a Hindu cathedral in New York for the year 2012; that is John Cage's centennial."