Paik, Musically: Fluxus—Stockhausen—Cage
Hanna B. Hölling1
Immersed in archival research at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, I am offered a large piece of erratically folded, white paper for inspection.2 With the support of a curator and a technician, we carefully unfold the paper to stretch it out on a large working table, gently fixing the paper’s ends with light weights to act against its material memory. At the first glance, there is nothing particularly exciting about this object, except for four irregularly shaped holes of different dimensions unevenly cut into it and arranged along one of the paper’s long edges. What am I looking at? I ask myself and my companions. It turns out, it is a screen used in Nam June Paik’s Young Penis Symphony (“Young Penis Sinfonie”) employed in 1975 and gifted by the Friedman Family to the Hood Collection eleven years later. The work fascinates me: It has been known largely through its score entailed in Wolf Vostell’s Décollage in 1962, and whose “expected world premiere” was scheduled for 1984.3 The score reads:
… curtain up …
the audience sees only a huge piece of white paper stretched across the whole
stage mouth, from the ceiling to the floor and from the left to the right wing.
Behind this paper, on the stage, stand ten young men …………. ready.
… after a while …
The first sticks his penis out through the paper to the audience …
The second sticks his penis out through the paper to the audience …
The tenth sticks his penis out through the paper to the audience …
Staging rhythm and repetition and above all descriptive content, the score is formally similar to many scores created by Paik in the Fluxus tradition during the early 1960s. Unlike the screen featured in the score, the screen at Hood is destined for four participants and is comparatively modest: not only would it not suffice to be stretched across a stage, but it would also cover only the essential parts of the performers’ bodies. Was the screen once larger, was it torn apart?4 And nonetheless, with its folds and material history, the screen is a witness and a relic of Young Penis Symphony performance. It contributes to its physical archive and complements the score. As is the case with other material residues of performance (props, leftovers, relics) and the scores, notation, and documentation that form a material stratigraphy of the otherwise fleeting work, they may stand in for performance in its absence, evidencing that it has once happened and bearing promise that it might return.5
Paik’s interests in both the experimentation with the musical form of symphony and in the connection between sex and music, manifest in the above example, were not singular. Not only did he create several symphonies throughout his career,6 but he also insisted that, after serial, deterministic, and action music emancipated the musical genre in the twentieth century, sexuality should now too be allowed into it. For instance, early in his career, he planned for Beethoven’s Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata) to be performed by a naked artist in Cologne—a plan that he realized later, albeit in a different fashion, in his prolific collaboration with the cellist Charlotte Moorman (1964–1991).7 Often hailed for his introduction of video as an artistic medium to visual arts in the second half of the twentieth century, Paik, in fact, had a strong musical background that permeated not only the choice of variety of his forms of expression but had also crucial impact on his creative process and the afterlives of his works in a long history.
No other media artist can claim as direct a link to music and musical performance as Paik. His artistic oeuvre and the concepts embodied in his works can be fully understood only if his achievements as a composer and musician are considered alongside them. Paik’s musical accomplishments date back to the early 1950s; later, as a follower of John Cage and a participant in Fluxus, both in Europe and in the United States, he became “le grand expérimentateur(a great experimenter)” in the field of new music. Like other artists of the 1950s and 1960s, Paik challenged categories of media and materials and undertook a range of work—in performance, new music, avant-garde film and video, and Fluxus.8
During his early education in Tokyo, Munich, and Freiburg in the 1950s, Paik devoted himself to the study of music—and seemed destined for a career as a classical pianist. He moved from Korea to Hong Kong and then to Japan, where he studied aesthetics, music, and art history and eventually wrote his undergraduate thesis on Arnold Schönberg. Schönberg, who is one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, invented the twelve-tone scale, used by a number of composers of new music, and contributed to the emergence of serialism (a technique of composition based on twelve-tone scale). Paik was one of the first East Asians to appreciate Schönberg’s music, and in turn, it helped him to bridge East and West in his thinking.9 To please his family Paik began attending doctoral seminars and writing a dissertation on Anton Webern, but he soon abandoned these efforts. In 1957 he moved to Germany, which he found particularly inviting as a center of contemporary music. For two years he studied in Freiburg with Wolfgang Fortner, who advised Paik to work in the electronic studio of the West German radio station WDR in Cologne, an important center for contemporary music that attracted such composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, and György Ligeti. In 1957 and 1958 Paik attended the International Summer School Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, where he learned of the latest interdisciplinary advances in music and met Cage and Stockhausen.10 Stockhausen’s work in electronic music (see, for instance, his electronic music work Kontakte realized at the WDR 1958–60), had a major impact on Paik. His experience with electronic music, acoustics, and endless manipulation of sound fostered his engagement with other electronic media such as television and video, notably manifest in his first major exhibition Exposition of Music—Electronic Television in Wuppertal in March 1963—an event that years later helped him gain wide recognition.
But it was Cage’s music and his philosophy, based on Zen Buddhism, that most profoundly influenced Paik. The American composer, with his Oriental attitudes, brought Paik closer, ironically, to his own cultural inheritance.11 Cage’s major achievement in music was to erase the boundary between ambient “noise” and the sounds made by traditional instruments in a musical performance. Cage incorporated the central idea of Buddhist philosophy—the sanctity of pure nothingness and emptiness— into his work, and postulated the free development of a composition.12 Thus his scores were not a set of strict instructions, but rather proposals that allowed chance, contingency, and indeterminacy to enter the musical work. His well-known 4’ 33’’ (1952), a musical structure based on duration rather than harmony, acknowledges silence as a valid component of musical work. With its quality of duration and its equivalence to sound, silence influenced not just Cage but was weighted with exceptional meaning for Paik, all Fluxus artists and visual arts of the coming decades more broadly.13
Paik’s early musical performances, however, stage the opposite of silence. In a performance of his Hommage à John Cage: Music for Tape Recorder and Piano (1959–60) at the Atelier Mary Bauermeister in Cologne, Paik performed several movements concluded by destroying and overturning the piano. The action was restaged several times in 1960, and in the fall of that year Paik and Cage performed a joint concert, Etude for Piano, during which Paik cut off Cage’s tie then washed his co-performer’s hair with shampoo.14 That performance, termed “action music,” a phrase which would reappear through Paik’s early career (see, for instance, Paik’s actions performed during Stockhausen’s Originale in 1961 at the Theater am Dom in Cologne or during the 2nd Annual Avant-garde Festival of New York organized by Charlotte Moorman at the Judson Hall in New York in 1963), combined musical elements with rapid physical actions. Unpredictable and irritating, which Paik deemed a precondition for the successive audiences’ intense experience of his work, they shocked spectators and earned him the epithet “destruction artist.”15
Given Paik’s musical roots and subsequent career, it is no surprise that his early creative activities in action music, performance, and theatrical staging brought him into contact with Fluxus artists and, subsequently, with the visual arts. Blending art forms, media, and disciplines in the 1960s and 1970’s, Fluxus—from the Latin word for flow— was an international network of artists, composers, and designers gathered around George Maciunas. Fluxus embraced “do-it-yourself” aesthetics and valued simplicity over complexity.16 The group’s creative output included musical scores (by La Monte Young, George Brecht, and Paik, among many others), Fluxus boxes, new music, film, poetry, and books. The origins of Fluxus lay in the concept of indeterminacy and in the experimental music Cage explored in the 1950s. Through his classes at the New School for Social Research, many of the core members of later Fluxus, and notably Brecht, were encouraged to write experiment notations, incorporating chance and choice. The scores, which evolved from long textual notations— Young Penis Symphony from the beginning of this essay being one example—to short, abstract texts, form a backbone of Fluxus’ artistic innovation. In Europe in the early 1960s, Fluxus event scores were associated with performances and festivals (see, for instance, the brochure announcing NEO-DADA in der Musik performed at the Kammerspiele Düsseldorf in 1962) and which later, in the US, were transmitted through publications in elegantly packed box cards and anthologies designed and/or issued by Maciunas.17 Paik’s keen interests in creating scores, several of which appeared in the publication Pop Art: Do it Yourself (1963),18 such as, for instance, DO IT YOURSELF: Answers to La Monte Young, Fig. 1 Fig. 2 subscribe to Fluxus’ overall premise: to compose works which are simple, performable by everyone, and which, by renouncing the total control and individual authorship so characteristic of the earlier model of artistic genius, liberate and empower the viewer-participant.
Cage’s use of prepared pianos (altered by placing diverse objects on or between the strings), audiotapes, and radio receivers as musical instruments exerted the strongest influence on Paik. Unlike Cage, however, in making the transition from music to visual arts Paik acknowledged in those “instruments” not only apparatuses that produced sound but also objects with sculptural, aesthetic qualities, open to the audience’s manipulation. Here, for Paik, was the thread that connected music to the visual arts. If Cage inspired Paik to think about the manipulation of musical instruments in visual arts, Paik credited Stockhausen with opening his eyes to the potential of electronic media: “After twelve Performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale, I started a new life from November 1961. By starting a new life I mean that I stocked my whole library except those books on TV technique into storage and locked it up. I read and practiced only electronics. In other words, I went back to the Spartan life of pre-college days… only physics and electronics.”19
Paik’s involvement in experimental music and his pronounced interests in musical performance raise challenging questions about the presentation and conservation of his multimedia art. In times when virtually none of his works exist in their initial shape, what, exactly, is being presented or conserved in these works? Is it an authentic object, the possibility of an experience, or the residue of a past event? In the world of media installations, what does it mean to be “unique” or “authentic”? Whether musical performances, media installations or video sculptures, Paik’s works change when they rematerialize, and their varied iterations suggest a need to rethink how his artworks can be understood as unfixed and undetermined materiality.
Proofreading: Yes More Translation (Yunjung Sun Kim, George Kafka)