Genius artist with deep insights into life
By Chung Ah-young
By Chung Ah-young
Paik Nam-june was a once-in-a-century video artist, composer, avant-garde performer and also lover of Shigeko Kubota. She had been an inspiring colleague and life-time partner of the artist until he died in 2006.
On July 20, also his 78th birthday, Kubota came to Seoul to talk about her memoir “My Love, Paik Nam-june.” She looked a bit tired from the sweltering summer heat here but her eyes sparkled with passion and yearning when talking about her memories of her husband.
The book written by Kubota and Nam Jeong-ho reconstitutes Paik’s artistic and also human story unknown to the public and reveals her dedication and support behind his life as well.
“This book is his personal artistic story. This is about a poor artist,” said Kubota in a press event.
Unlike his early impoverished life as an artist, he was born to a wealthy family in 1932. When the Korean War (1950-53) broke out, his family moved to Hong Kong and Japan.
Paik was smart enough to enter the University of Tokyo on a scholarship due to his excellent scores.
After finishing his studies in Japan, he fled to Germany to study music at Munich University, and there he developed his artistic career after encountering American composer John Cage who had deeply inspired his artistic world.
The now 73-year-old Japanese first met Paik in 1964 at a Tokyo performance when he was emerging as an aspiring avant-garde artist in Europe. She recalled the moment as “the destructive performance like a storm,” that haunted her even after the show. He threw eggs into a wall and pounded the piano, rather than playing it, with various tools and finally destroyed the instrument with an axe. Then, he put his head into an ink-filled washbowl and then drew a line with his ink-soaked hair.
Back then, Kubota, also an artist, was indulging in Dadaism, and so she was immediately captivated by Paik’s defiant, rather “grotesque” artistic style. After that, she began harboring a crush on Paik. “I loved him because he was talented! … He had knowledge about everything, from high art to low art,” she said.
Afterwards, the two became close while they were staying in New York, a hot spot for artists from all over the world. They shared many ideas about the Fluxus movement, which means “to flow” engaging an international network of artists, composers and designers in 1960s based on anti-capitalistic and anarchistic activism in line with Dadaism. The concept pierced the central spirit of Paik’s oeuvre.
After being immersed in action music and Neo-Dada art performances inspired by Cage, his interest spontaneously moved to a new art sphere using multimedia. First, he used cassettes and recorders to manipulate the sounds to win feedback from the audience. Then, he studied a pile of books about electric technology and physics related to television. Finally, he made his video art debut at the landmark exhibition titled “Exposition of Music _ Electronic Television” in 1963 in Germany. Kubota likened him to “the George Washington of video art.”
The book also introduced a notorious incident in 1967 with Charlotte Moorman, a cellist, who performed in Paik’s controversial show “Opera Sextronique” that shook the U.S. at the time. The show aroused a controversy over whether it was art or obscenity.
Kubota confessed that she was lonely as Paik concentrated on art. “I was a loser in this love game with Nam-june all the time because I loved him much more than he loved me,” she said in the book.
Even though his reputation grew in the world art scene, he always struggled in life. "I heard he was rich in Korea but when I met Nam-june, he was broke,” she said.
She said that Paik spent money like water for his artistic works even though they had to worry about paying the rent. She would frequently fight with Paik over money as he used to buy enormous numbers of television sets without any qualms. But she soon recognized that he was a genius. He mastered physics and electric circuits to manipulate the screen images and colors by experimenting with the devices.
Kubota was sure that Paik was not only an artist but also a scientist like Leonardo da Vinci who had extraordinary insight in embracing human civilization. He had a good command of five languages _ Korean, Japanese, German, French and Chinese.
“I was lonely and poor but I was truly happy to be a lover of the genius artist nobody can emulate,” she said.
The widow wanted to marry him but he didn’t want to because he was a free spirited artist who never wanted to be tied up in a social system.
But his attitude toward marriage suddenly changed when she was about to leave for Japan after she was told that she had a tumor in her womb. She was not covered by medical insurance and so she wanted to undergo surgery in Japan. But Paik proposed to marry her to cover the fees with his medical insurance. Kubota felt sad as she wanted to have a baby but couldn’t due to the surgery.
After marrying, they moved to Germany as he offered to teach students at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, arguably the top university in the country that generated prominent contemporary artists. She called it “the era of Germany” from 1979 to 1996 that peaked in his artistic life. The couple could escape from their economic difficulties and enjoy the honorable treatment in the German art circles.
He was selected as one of the representative artists of Germany in the Venice Biennale in 1993 as a non-German artist. He showed his masterful show “Electronic Superhighway _ From Venice to Ulan Bator.” He was named “maestro,” the highest honor in Germany.
But until then, he was almost unknown in his home country. Paik returned to Korea in 1984 only after he was internationally popular with his work “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” a live link between WNET New York, the Pompidou Center in Paris and Korea.
Kubota said that the book is for Korean artist aspirants with an inspiring story of overcoming difficulties. “The book is a poor artist’s story. Don’t give up. Art has more chances than Wall Street. Art is like God. Art is sometimes disappointing but offers sprit and a future always,” she said.