On Ekstase: Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys in the Scope of Shamanism

Shinya Watanabe1


Beuys and Paik first met and talked on July 5, 1961, in front of Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, during an action of the ZERO group.2 3 Later, Paik chose the picture of their first encounter for the exhibition catalog of Beuys Vox (1961–1986),4 the memorial multiple artwork commemorating their lifelong collaboration.

Before this, Beuys actually visited Paik’s first performative composition Hommage à John Cage: Music for Tape Recorder and Piano on November 13, 1959 at Galerie 22.5 Here, Beuys saw Paik overturning the piano and destroying it. Paik considered that Beuys found the influence of shamanism in this performance, which led to a conversation between the two one-and-a-half years later. Sharing a mutual interest in shamanism, which preserves the ancient memory of Eurasia, they quickly built their friendship.

Shamanism and music had been always central in their collaborations. On June 16, 1962, Paik had a world premiere of One for Violin Solo at the second proto-Fluxus event NEO-DADA in der Musik at the Kammerspiele Düsseldorf. While Paik was slowly raising the violin, the concert master of the Düsseldorf Municipal Orchestra shouted, “Save the violin!” Then, Joseph Beuys and Konrad Klapphek hissed at him, “Don’t interrupt the concert!” and bounced him out of the concert hall.6 After which, Paik smashed the violin on the table, producing a single note.7

On March 11, 1963, Paik’s solo exhibition Exposition of Music—Electronic Television opened at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. This exhibition is well known for the installation of 13 prepared TVs, which is now considered to be the starting point of video art. At the entrance of this exhibition, Paik hung the ox head above the entrance of the gallery, an indirect reference to Korean shamanism.8 During Paik’s childhood, in October of the lunar calendar, a female shaman came to his house around 4 pm, and sang and danced until 8 or 9 am. During this ritual, all men had to leave the house. A few days before the shaman’s visit, Paik’s mother prepared a soup with the entire ox head, so the skull would be left. At midnight, the ritual of Daikamnori was performed; the shaman grabbed the skull of the ox, considering the head of the household to be a god, and danced.9

Four prepared pianos were located in the exhibition, one of them laying on the floor. This piano was stripped of its panels and hammers, so the visitor could touch the naked strings and make music with their feet. On the opening night, Beuys came to the exhibition, and smashed this piano by a hammer.10 Seeing Paik’s performances of upending the piano and destroying the violin,11 Beuys played this hammerless piano, with a real hammer in his hand.

For them, a musical instrument was a metaphor for the human body and the destruction of it was a shamanistic act of Ekstase12—the liberation of the soul. Paik breaks the neck of the violin, almost like a samurai beheading a dying man, and emancipating the soul from its body. On the other hand, Beuys disintegrated Paik’s prepared piano lying on the floor, almost like removing the life-support system of a critically ill patient, to liberate the soul from its body, as a material incarnation. So this Piano Aktion was Beuys’ homage to Paik, who destroyed the piano in Hommage à John Cage.13

Coyote III (1984)

Their joint visit to Japan in 1984 culminated in their last collaborative work Coyote III14 at the Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo.15 Paik wanted to create a variation on their previous concert with two pianos In Memoriam George Maciunas (1978),16 so he ordered two pianos. At the rehearsal, Beuys played the red Bösendorfer piano, but in the actual performance, Beuys did not play the piano. Instead, Beuys wrote the word öö on the blackboard, following something like Morse code, and howled öö into the microphone. Paik played the piano, including George Gershwin’s Summertime, Chopin’s Prelude and Kosaku Yamada’s Akatonbo [Red Dragonfly]. Suddenly, Paik beat the piano keyboard violently with his microphone, causing it to fall apart.

Then, Beuys wrote the word “Coyote” just above these signals. By doing so, Beuys likened the code to the footsteps of a coyote and turned it into a music score; his voice performance became a coyote’s howl. Inspired by Beuys’ howl, Paik improvised moon related songs, such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Rentarō Taki’s Kōjō no Tsuki [The Moon over the Ruined Castle].17 About this performance, Paik later recalled, “the audience and performers on the stage could feel the sense of “wilderness” of a lone wolf in the snowy night. During my childhood in the countryside of Korea, a lone wolf sometimes climbed down to a village to eat up a child. And listening to the desolate crying of a wolf in a room dimly lit by an oil cup for a lamp on a winter night created a certain poesie. Beuys recreated exactly the poetic sentiment of the Central Asian steppe.”18

Seeing Beuys’ öö, Paik thought “he drew the footsteps of a wolf on snow”. Hearing Beuys’ coyote howl, Paik associated it with the legend of the werewolf looking at the moon,19 and played moon-related songs from both Europe and Asia, in order to connect the West and the East of Eurasia.

A Pas de Loup: De Séoul à Budapest (1990)

After the death of Joseph Beuys in 1986, Paik made the performance A Pas de Loup: De Séoul à Budapest [Footsteps of a Wolf: from Seoul to Budapest] in the backyard of Gallery Hyundai in Seoul on July 20, 1990, which was his 58th birthday. For Paik, July 20 means a lot.20 July 20, 1964 was the 20th anniversary of Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, and on this day, a bleeding Joseph Beuys did a quasi “Heil Hitler” performance at the Fluxus Festival Actions/Agit-Pop/De-Collage/Happening/Events/Antiart/L’autrisme/Art Total/Refluxus: Festival der neuen Kunst, of which Paik made the event poster. On the back of his first solo exhibition invitation in the United States in January 1965, Paik wrote to Beuys, calling him “You MARTYR of July 20, 1964”.21

Later in 1985, Paik created the work July 20, in which he overlapped his birthday July 20th with the birthday of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1928, the death of von Stauffenberg in 1944, and the moon landing led by John F. Kennedy in 1969.22 As time goes by, their life cycle reaches infinity; karma disappears and leaves the chain of reincarnation.

This 1990 event is entitled Nam June Paik + Shaman Exorcism Rite + Joseph Beuys’ Memorial Service, with subtitles including The Dream of the Ural-Altaic People and Shaman Exorcism Rite in Search of Time Lost.23 Here, Paik performed a Korean Shamanistic ritual called Jinogi-gut, which is generally held after a death to ensure that the spirit of the deceased does not linger in the profane world.24 Paik wrote in the exhibition catalog, “Medium (media) as a medieval theological concept denotes an instrumentality or means of communication with God. The origin of Gut (shaman’s exorcism rite) is Ol (the spirit itself) in Mongolian which is almost a synonym with media.”25

While Korean shamans called mudang practiced Jinogi-gut, Paik approached the piano laid on the ground, almost as if it were the piano which Beuys destroyed at Paik’s first solo exhibition. At that time, Beuys played the piano with a hammer, but in this performance, Paik hammered a nail into the piano lid. By doing so, Paik turned this piano into Beuys’ coffin.26 Then, Paik shoveled earth over the piano to bury it.27 Wearing a horsehair hat,28 Paik displayed Beuys’ hat sculpture with a hole in the top. In Mongolian shamanism, people worship the head as a holy part which connects people to heaven. So by opening up the top of the hat, Paik made Beuys’ soul ready to leave his body and reach heaven. By adding ketchup around the hole in Beuys’ hat sculpture, Paik firstly turned it into a bloody wound, a central motif of Beuys. Then, Paik threw rice onto it; this magical act turned the hat’s opening into the birth canal (vagina) after blood (ketchup) and sperm (rice). Then, Paik placed some flowers against it; becoming the homage for Beuys’ We Won’t Do It without the Rose, Because We Can No Longer Think (1972). Fig. 1

There, Paik exhibited the folding screen with Beuys’ picture from Coyote III concert, with Beuys’ dharma name “普夷寿[bo-i-su]”.29 30 In the 1984 concert, Beuys drew the footsteps of a coyote on the blackboard, and Paik extended these footsteps from Seoul to Budapest, the area where Eurasian nomads dwelled. Through this shamanistic ritual, originating in Siberia and still happening in Korea, Paik returned Beuys’ soul to heaven, almost like The Dream of the Ural-Altaic People.

German Pavilion: Marco Polo (1993)

In 1993, Nam June Paik was chosen to represent the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was the first Venice Biennale after the reunification of Germany, so people expected that one artist from the former East and one from West Germany would be chosen. However, the curator Klaus Bussmann invited Paik from the divided country in the Far East, as an “honorary foreign worker.”31 As a result, Paik became the first foreigner to represent another nation’s national pavilion.

Along with Hans Haacke who took the central room and the main façade dating from the Nazi times, Paik installed Electronic Superhighway—From Venice to Ulan Bator in the backyard of the German Pavilion.32 Installing a Mongolian tent, Paik likened this backyard to the Gobi Desert, because “Joseph Beuys said, ‘there was no desert of Gobi, the desert was a GREEN!’”33 By taking advantage of the backyard with lots of “greens”, Paik showed his respect to Beuys, the founder of the German Green Party.

Bearing in mind Beuys’ thought that “the desert was a GREEN!”, Paik began to think about the many communications through the Gobi Desert. In ancient times, the Steppe Route was a highway connecting the east and west of EURASIA. This idea led to Paik’s invention of the Electronic Superhighway (1974); it was a broadband communication system connecting the East and West Coasts of North America, which was eventually realized as the Information Superhighway by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1993.34 There, Paik installed his seven Family of Robot; Marco Polo, Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan, Tangun as Scythian King, Attila, the King of the Huns, Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great and Crimean Tatars who saved the life of Joseph Beuys. Paik wrote that Marco Polo was able to come to Beijing and return to Venice, because of Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica. This trade route was incredibly dangerous, but during the short reign of Genghis Khan, it was policed well and taxed well, allowing Marco Polo to undertake his journey. If Marco Polo had not visited China at this time, Renaissance culture could have been delayed for many years.35 Even so, the rulers from the East, such as Genghis Khan and Attila, had gained a negative reputation in Europe. Finding the need to improve their reputation in the West, Paik created Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan.

Regarding the reason for exhibiting Crimean Tatars Who Saved the Life of Joseph Beuys, Paik says that is because the Crimean Tatar had never been thanked by the German officials.36 By installing these seven Family of Robot in the backyard of the German Pavilion, Paik did a wonderful memorial service for Joseph Beuys, who would not see the reunification of East and West Germany, and by connecting Venice to Ulan Bator, he made us the same family of EUR-ASIA.

Shinya Watanabe is an independent curator and film director. An Adjunct Professor at Temple University in Tokyo, Watanabe acquired his doctoral degree with Searching for EUR-ASIA: Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik’s Life Long Collaboration at Berlin University of the Arts, and curated Nam June Paik: Who Will be Laughing in 2020? + ? = ?? at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (2016).

Riegel, Hans P. Beuys. Die Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2013), 161.

On that occasion, Beuys asked Paik to have a concert in his atelier, which ended up the Fluxus Festival, called Festum Fluxorum Fluxus: Musik und Antimusik. Das Instrumentale Theater at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, which became the debut of Beuys’s Action.

Edition of 16 produced by Won Gallery and Hyundai Gallery, this Beuys Vox consists of 21 multiple objects relating to the artistic friendship between Beuys and Paik from 1961 to 1986, which was interrupted by the death of Joseph Beuys: a TV cabinet, sculptures, a screen, photographs, lithographs, silkscreens, offsets, catalogs, records, and video tapes. These include for example 10 photographs of Piano Duet by J. Beuys and N.J. Paik In Memoriam George Maciunas of 1978, Beuys Hat, and also the video recording of the Schmerzraum installation at Konrad Fisher Gallery in Düsseldorf in 1984. Amongst these 21 objects, thirteen are signed by Nam June Paik, four are signed by Joseph Beuys, and one is additionally signed by John Cage.

On the very first page of the Beuys Vox catalog text, Paik wrote, “The one good fortune in my life was that I got to know John Cage while he was considered more a gadfly than a guru and Joseph Beuys when he was still an eccentric hermit in Düsseldorf. Therefore it was possible for me to associate myself on an equal footing with these two senior masters as colleagues even after their stardom.”

Nam June Paik, Beuys Vox, 1961–86 (Seoul: Won Gallery, 1990), 2–4.

Right before this performance, Paik distributed pamphlets with the inscription “Bildzeitung Kriegstreiber Nr. 1 für neuen Weltkrieg [Tabloid Warmonger No. 1 for New World War].” Riegel, Hans P., Beuys. Die Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2013), 164. This eerie pamphlet title turns Paik’s action One for Violin Solo into a reenactment of “Kaisyaku”, a form of assistance in committing hara-kiri by beheading a man. Likening the violin to a samurai sword, Paik smashed the violin on the table, and broke its neck, just like a Kaisyaku-person cuts through the neck of the man committing suicide to end his suffering. The neck of the violin will be broken, so it cannot be played anymore, just as the man whose neck has been severed cannot live anymore. At the moment of smashing the violin, the theater lights are turned off, so that the audience knows that both the show and the life of the violin is over with a single note, which ends the Western history of music.

Paik wrote a long text on Ekstase of Shamanism and Buddhism in “Nachspiel zur Ausstellung, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television (Wuppertal 1963)”, [Afterlude to the Exposition of Experimental Television], in V TRE Fluxus newspaper no.5, 1964.

Bauermeister, Mary, Manfred Leve, Nam J. Paik, and Peter M. Pickshaus. Nam June Paik (Köln: König, 2009), 103–104.

About Piano Aktion, Beuys says, “My first concert (apart from Beethoven at school and Satie at the opening of my exhibition in Cleves in 1960) was at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in 1963. Dressed like a regular pianist in dark grey flannel, black tie, and no hat, I played the piano all over—not just the keys—with many pairs of old shoes until it disintegrated. My intention was neither destructive nor nihilistic: ‘Heal like with like’—similia similibus curantur—in the homeopathic sense. The main intention was to indicate a new beginning, an enlarged understanding of every traditional form of art, or simply a revolutionary act.” Tisdall, Caroline, and Joseph Beuys. Joseph Beuys (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 87.

In a 1963 Interview, Paik said, “The Piano is taboo. It should be destroyed”. Nam June Paik, interview by Gottfried Michael Koenig, in ‘Die Fluxus Leute’, in Magnum, special issue Experimente. no.47. p.64. (April 1963); qtd. Decker-Phillips, Edith, Paik Video (Barrytown, N.Y: Barrytown, Ltd, 1998), 28.

In the 1810 dialogue Clara, Friedrich Schelling explains Ekstase as “becoming one with the infinite by way of a being-outside-oneself of the finite subject”. Davis, Bret W. Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 332.

What is important is that Beuys considered this almost violent action as “healing.” Seeing the chopped female mannequin sunk in the bathtub as in a murder scene in this exhibition, Beuys clearly realized Paik’s serious war wound. This chopped female mannequin is reminiscent of Paik’s 1962 work Atom Bomb Victim; two uniformed men wearing gas masks carry an “atom bomb victim” on a stretcher, a woman, half of the body of whom is prepared with cruel wounds and deformations, the other half as a sex-feast. Paik, Nam J, Wulf Herzogenrath, and Sabine M. Schmidt. Nam June Paik: Fluxus, Video (Bremen: Kunsthalle Bremen, 1999), 52. “Similia similibus curantur [likes are cured by likes]”: by quoting Paracelsus, the forerunner of homeopathy, Beuys, who suffered a serious war wound, tried to cure that of Paik.

The original title of this performance was Concert Performance for Two Pianos (with Nam June Paik), which was later given the title Coyote III.

Sogetsu Hall was the place where Paik destroyed one of the two pianos on stage, during the Sogetsu Contemporary Series: Works of Nam June Paik on May 29, 1964. In this performance, Paik planed the surface of the piano by using the Japanese tool [kanna], which he later employed in his commemoration for Beuys Lebe Wohl unsere Beuys (1986), as a performance of making the lid for Beuys’ coffin. This 1964 performance was done with Yoko Ono, and Gempei Akasegawa reviewed it. Also, after this performance, Paik first met Shigeko Kubota, his future wife. Kubota, Shigeko, Chŏng-ho Nam, and Sonjun Ko. Watakushi No Ai, Namujun Paiku: My Love, Nam June Paik (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2013), 69.

It is noteworthy that Beuys re-created 9 musical scores of this concert on a blackboard called Continūūm—The Seven Concepts Form One Unit: For the Future of Music and Antimusic (1984) at Galerie Watari on May 31, 1984, which was two days before Beuys’ and Paik’s Coyote III concert at Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo.

Later Paik made the work 月に吠える [Howling at the Moon] (1992), which has an image of howling Beuys at Sogetsu with two three-dimensional coyotes; one yellow, and one white. This title is a quote from the Japanese poet 萩原朔太[Sakutarō Hagiwara], considered the “father of modern colloquial poetry in Japan.” His name contains the word (saku), which means the day when the sunlight reflected from the moon does not reach the earth, which is today known as a New Moon.

Beuys Vox, 1961–86, 37–38.

In Paik’s mind, there was also the legend of Moon Rabbit, which Beuys often used as a symbol of EURASIA and Free International University. For Beuys, Moon Rabbit is a symbol of the previous life of Gautama Buddha. Moreover, in this action, Beuys chose the sound poem of Steiner, which includes the sentence “Wehtim Bebenden, Webtbebend, Webendbindend”. This sentence contains the words starting with W and B, and according to Steiner, “The letters W and B correspond to each other. Wotan, Odin is the same as Bodha – Buddha.” For more details, please read Shinya Watanabe’s “Searching for EUR-ASIA Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik’s Life Long Collaboration”. https://opus4.kobv.de/opus4-udk/frontdoor/index/index/docId/1074

For the book Happenings in 1965, which Beuys firstly created and published his fictive biography Life Course/Work Course (1964), Paik wrote about his birthday July 20th in relation to the lunar and solar calendars, German fascism and the following dictatorship in USSR: “1932. 20. 7., the day of the uprising against Hitler, I was born in Seoul / Korea, as a son of my father and mother at the same time as a grandchild of my grandmother and my grandfather. It was June 17 in the lunar calendar (day of the uprising against Stalin). At home, I have celebrated my birthday following an old Korean tradition on June 17 after the lunar calendar, and in the school and in my passport, July 20 is my official birth date. I prefer this date, because, if the German people had been more strongly opposed to Hitler, the precious blood spilt against Stalin would not have been necessary. Therefore both days should be determined as national holidays, not just June 17 as today.” Paik’s sentence “as son of my father and mother at the same time as a grandchild of my grandmother and my grandfather” shows the strong influence of 四柱推命 [Four Pillar astrology]. Derived from the I-Ching and based on the Theory of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, Four Pillar astrology defines the year as the grandparents, the month as the parents, the day as the person himself, and time as his or her descendants. Paik may have wanted to overlap the symbolic death of Beuys in Europe (Yin) and the birth of Paik in Asia (Yang) on July 20, almost like Europe (night) and Asia (day)—the time difference within Eurasia.

Paik, Nam June, Sook-Kyung Lee, and Susanne Rennert. Nam June Paik (London: Tate, 2010), 130.

In the series of K-456 performance, which speaks the inauguration speech of John F. Kennedy, Paik made the dead Kennedy meet naked Charlotte Moorman, the alter ego of Marilyn Monroe.

Oh, Kwang Su, “Nam June Paik, Beuys and Shaman Exorcism Rite: A Search for the Original Form,” in Paik, Nam June, A Pas de Loup. de Séoul à Budapest (Seoul: Won Gallery/Hyundai Gallery, 1991), 63–65.

Horlyck, Charlotte, and Michael J. Pettid, Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: Ancient to Contemporary Times (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014),145.

Paik, Nam June, A Pas de Loup. de Séoul à Budapest, 46.

Hitting the piano lid was in the score of John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942).

This may be the homage of their first unrealized collaboration Earth Piano (1962).

This horsehair hat is reminiscent of the hat sold by Paik’s grandfather Paik Yun-su.

When Paik was asked, “What is your favorite word?” during the Q&A session following their Coyote III concert, Paik created the word “墓椅子” and “墓異州” which can be read as “Beuys,” as improvisation. About the word [yi], Paik emphasized that the character means the person [] who has a big bow []. So the concept 東夷 [Dong Yi] which came from 華夷 [HuáYí] (Sino–barbarian dichotomy) in ancient China describes Tungusic peoples in Siberia, which formed one of the ethnic backgrounds of Koreans.

Paik wrote, “Does Yamaek (an ancient Korean tribe) mean a group of old wolves? In the History of Yuan, the rulers called themselves blue wolves.” Paik, Nam June. A Pas de Loup. de Séoul à Budapest, 46.

Harald Szeemann was the first person who called Paik “Geister Gastarbeiter [spiritual guest worker].” Bussmann, Klaus, Florian Matzner, and Nam J. Paik. Nam June Paik: Eine Data Base: La Biennale Di Venezia Xlv, Esposizione Internazionale D’arte, 13.6.–10.10.1993, Padiglione Tedesco = German Pavilion = Deutscher Pavillon (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993), 10, 132.

As a result, the German Pavilion of 1993 won the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion of the 45th Venice Biennale.

Bussmann, Klaus, Florian Matzner, and Nam J. Paik. Nam June Paik: Eine Data Base: La Biennale Di Venezia Xlv, Esposizione Internazionale D’arte, 13.6.–10.10.1993, Padiglione Tedesco = German Pavilion = Deutscher Pavillon (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993), 18.

In the 1993 exhibition catalog eine DATA base, Paik exhibited the work VENICE IV—1993, Bill Clinton Stole My Idea.

Beuys Vox, 1961–86, 50.

Bussmann, Klaus, Florian Matzner, and Nam J. Paik, Nam June Paik: Eine Data Base: La Biennale di Venezia Xlv, Esposizione Internazionale D’arte, 13.6.–10.10.1993, Padiglione Tedesco = German Pavilion = Deutscher Pavillon (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993), 129.

Joseph Beuys, We Won't Do It without the Rose, Because We Can No Longer Think, 1972, Lithograph on paper, 804 x 568 mm. ⓒ Joseph Beuys / BILD-KUNST, Bonn - SACK, Seoul, 2020