Perhaps the first robot ever to be hit by a car was crossing a Manhattan street in 1982. Nam June Paik’s “Robot K-456” had gone out for a walk, in a performance staged during the artist’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A friend of Paik’s was behind the wheel.
A reporter asked the artist what it all meant. Paik said he was looking ahead to the 21st century, when he would have to cope with the catastrophe of technology. The remark was probably more lighthearted snark than dystopic soothsaying — although, fair enough, technology today has its down sides.
Paik, who died in 2006, at 73, was a buoyant artist and a visionary; he coined the term “information superhighway” and early on envisioned a video common market, like YouTube.
He made wily, subversive work that broke through rigid ideas about screens. “Nam June Paik: Screen Play,” at the Harvard Art Museums through Aug. 5, celebrates his playfulness, his spirit of collaboration (among others, violinist Charlotte Moorman and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys were co-conspirators), and his insistence on marrying video’s intangible world with the concrete one.
Eight new acquisitions — gifts from the artist’s nephew, Ken Hakuta — form the core of this small exhibition of roughly 20 art objects and a variety of ephemera. Associate curator of modern and contemporary art Mary Schneider Enriquez and research fellow Marina Isgro organized the show.
Paik, the granddaddy of video art, hungrily bridged mediums, incorporating music, sculpture, and performance with his TV works. To him, video wasn’t hermetically sealed in a boxy monitor; it could be part of a larger vision, as in “Nomad Suitcase,” in which yellow luggage scrawled over with place names is set atop two video monitors bubbling with abstract imagery, equating outer destinations with inner ones. Paik brought TV out to play.
His videos skitter and blink with abstractions or snips of found footage. They speak more to a state of mind — part chattering TV, part transcendental meditation — than to a particular message.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to see. For “TV Crown,” Paik rigged an old set with audio generators and more, drawing sound waves that pulse and dance on the screen. And in his “Electronic Opera #1,” broadcast on WGBH in 1969, clips of Richard Nixon slide and swirl amid images of hippies and trippy abstractions. Paik occasionally breaks in with a voice-over: “Close your eyes.” “What do we do now?” “Turn off your TV set.”
The artist returned again and again to a Buddha motif, positioning video as a reflection of the mind. In his iconic “TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha),” a statue of the enlightened one sits opposite a groovy, orb-shaped portable TV set, airing a closed-circuit broadcast of the statue.
If the Buddha is caught in an endless loop, he’s illustrating an essential lesson of Buddhism: We’re trapped in a loop of suffering until we cultivate mindfulness. Perhaps, though, the video represents self-reflection, and the kind of nonjudgmental inner witness we must develop in order to achieve awakening.
When asked if he was a Buddhist, Paik replied, “No, I’m an artist.” But he was familiar with Buddhism. Born in Korea, he moved with his family to Japan as a young man, and studied music in Germany before settling in the United States. The K-456 in the robot’s title is a Mozart citation: piano concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, listing 456 in the Köchel catalog.
That robot isn’t here, alas, but there’s a small one at the base of an assemblage built around a life-size photograph of George Maciunas, organizer of Fluxus, a group of Dada-inspired conceptual artists who agitated for accessible art. Art, to Fluxus members, was about an experience, not an object (they, too, were anticipating 21st-century trends), and they specialized in performances and easily distributed multiples.
In the photo, Maciunas wears a stern expression, a white suit, and a straw boater. A small window in his chest opens onto a tiny video flickering with snow — a visual static recognizable to anyone born before 1990.
Paik uses snow brilliantly. Having grown up with it, I reflexively find it aversive. But inside George Maciunas’s chest, or in “Good Morning Mr. Orwell,” a screen print reproducing its haze, Paik imbues it with substance — either as an open field from which any idea might spring, or as a softly alarming vision of Big Brother.
Fluxus played a big role in Paik’s artistic life. Inspired by John Cage’s silent composition, “4’33”,” he collaborated with Maciunas to make “Zen for Film,” a stretch of blank film leader that, when projected, would show only light, dust, and stray scratches — the filmic equivalent of snow.
“Screen Play” raises existential questions, but it never broods. For all the larger notions Paik contended with, he always imbued his art with a spirit of revelation. Like his Fluxus mates, he saw art as an opportunity for viewers to make giddy leaps of understanding. And he knew the best way to make that happen was to have fun.
NAM JUNE PAIK: SCREEN PLAY
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through August 5. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.