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