Video artist's work set on fast forward

Zippy art that moves and morphs in a kinetic frenzy

It finally happened. They turned an art museum into a video arcade. So many images flit through the air at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, it's almost an assault on the senses.

But with "The Worlds of Nam June Paik" retrospective, which runs through April 26, the art is not dumbing down but beaming up. Four decades of video art beam from all surfaces.

The joint is jumping with moving images emitted by diverse media, from video to lasers. The zippy show tells us that art, like today's world, doesn't stand still. Forget static paintings on canvas. This art moves and morphs in kinetic frenzy.

Paik (pronounced Pike) was born in Korea but has worked in New York since 1964. He invented video art in 1965, when he made his first tapes with a portable video camera and showed them a few hours later in Greenwich Village.

In video art (video made by visual artists), the medium itself is the message - not the subject or content recorded by the medium. In its evolution, Mr. Paik's art influenced and absorbed avant-garde movements like Performance Art of the late 1960s; 1970s Installation and Sound Art; and 1980s High-Tech art.

Its latest incarnation Paik calls "postvideo" art. The rotunda of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building is the dazzling stage for both old and new. Representing the past - Paik's historic achievements in pioneering video art - are 100 TV monitors face-upward on the floor, radiating closed-loop video images ("Modulation in Sync"). Opposite, on the ceiling, is his vision of the future, a new work called "Sweet and Sublime."

Candy-colored lasers spin 3-D pinwheel designs over the skylight oculus, echoing the spiral of the museum's architecture. ("I was very fortunate to have this building to play with," Paik said at a recent press conference.)

Connecting the video art on the floor to the laser art at top is a seven-story "waterfall" (perhaps in homage to Wright's most famous building, Fallingwater). Glittery pulses of green laser light zigzag through the mist. Paik created the site-specific work, "Jacob's Ladder," especially for this venue. It gives tangible form to the idea of art as energy.

Along the ramps of the museum are old favorites from Paik's career.

They range from the low-tech "Candle TV" (1975) - a real candle inside an empty shell of a TV case, throwing light and shadow on the walls - to multimedia works like "Video Fish" (1975). Fifty-two monitors show video footage behind aquariums teeming with live fish.

The works remind us that Paik has humanized technology.

In "TV Garden" (1974), he tucks glowing monitors among bowers of philodendron. He makes us think as well as see differently. First, we wonder if the plants can survive with only blue video light. Then we wonder if we can survive with only light from our televisions, which keep us indoors, glued to the tube.

Shocks of recognition abound. Paik calls an arc of 13 monitors, showing the phases of the moon, "Moon is the Oldest TV" (1965). In other words, it's what we watched before TV. What are we missing, now that we no longer know the shape of the moon unless it's on the news? Paik demonstrates how mediated (media-dictated) our view of reality is.

In Paik's hands, our electronic-media culture becomes an expressive artistic tool. Before anyone could imagine it, he foresaw, then brought into focus, the artistic potential of video and television. In the process, he extended the methodology and exploded the definition of art.

In his "living sculpture" performance pieces, Paik collaborated with the classically trained cellist Charlotte Moorman to challenge conformist thinking. In one infamous 1969 work, while playing the cello, she wore mini-televisions taped to her breasts. Ms. Moorman called Paik's compositions "the first advance in the cello since 1600."

Before public-access channels existed, Paik designed interactive works inviting viewers to be active creators, not passive consumers, of media. In "Participation TV" (1963), gallerygoers could "draw" imagery on a TV tube by making sounds into a microphone to form abstract squiggles on-screen. His "Magnet TV" (1965) used powerful magnets to warp TV signals into jiggly shapes.

Reception and transmission became a democratic, two-way process.

The show's not just about what Paik did to transform electronic moving images into art. It's also about what's next. For Paik, the new, new thing is lasers.

In a darkened gallery, three dioramas of sculptural laser environments, called "Three Elements" (2000), wiggle like radioactive jellyfish. One, riffing on a triangle, is literally made of smoke and mirrors (lasers, mirrored chambers, prisms, motors, and smoke). It's like watching waves crash through a triangular kaleidoscope.

Paik calls himself "a naive optimist." This retrospective, a product of six years' labor and planning, illustrates his constant innovation and vision of life as a movable fest.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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