Andrew Russeth on Nam June Paik

Andrew Russeth on Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, The More, the Better, 1988, 1,003 monitors, steel structure, four-channel video, sound, indefinite running time. Installation view, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, South Korea, 2022. Photo: Woo Jongduk.

IN 2018, staffers at South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art received a condition report from hell. Nam June Paik’s gargantuan tower of televisions, which had stood for thirty years in the rotunda of the MMCA’s Gwacheon branch just south of Seoul, was at risk of catching fire, the Korea Electrical Safety Corporation said. So the museum stopped turning it on, and while it mulled restoration plans, the work’s 1,003 Samsung TVs sat dark.

Developed in the heady years leading up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Paik’s piece went on view as the games began. South Korea was becoming an economic juggernaut and had held its first free and fair direct presidential election the year prior. Soaring sixty feet above the ground and weighing sixteen tons, The More, the Better, 1988, was a monument for a new era, glowing with frenetic, sliced-and-diced footage of historical Korean landmarks (Dongdaemun Gate, Gyeongbokgung Palace) and cultural touchstones (celadon, hanbok), famed sites abroad (the Parthenon, the Arc de Triomphe), the opening ceremonies at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, and a lot more.

After moving from New York to the South Korean capital in late 2020, I rode the subway down to Gwacheon to visit the piece, unaware that it had been unplugged. It was a depressing sight. Surrounded by metal scaffolding and ensconced in a curtain, it had become a painful symbol for the state of culture amid global pandemic lockdowns. But earlier this year, after extensive conservation efforts, The More, the Better came back to life, first in test runs, the scaffolding still in place, then in its full glory on September 15, exactly thirty-four years after its debut.

How to even begin? This is a majestic beast of an artwork—captivating, ingenious, exhilarating, and kind of hilarious. Stacking one thousand (plus three!) televisions into a pyramid in the cavernous center of a government’s prized new museum sounds like a barroom fantasy, an improbable, cumbersome project, and yet there it is.

The technical know-how required to keep the tower functioning astonishes, but as an artwork, it is a fairly straightforward four-channel piece. You can quickly get a sense of the production from any point on the ramp that spirals up around that part of the building, which was designed by Tai Soo Kim and completed in 1986. (Concerns that it was too reminiscent of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York apparently led to Paik’s being tapped to create a differentiating centerpiece. It still looks a lot like the Guggenheim.) Most of the TVs show one of three videos—arrayed in diagonal lines—while a few three-by-three TV grids show a fourth.

Nam June Paik, The More, the Better (Oriental Painting), 1987, video, color, silent, 32 minutes. From The More, the Better, 1988.

On those screens, Korean folk drummers beat hulking drums, Merce Cunningham dances a sinuous solo, an airplane cuts through the sky, celadon ceramics rest on a pedestal, birds fly, an eye blinks, and on and on. The clips come too fast, and just as you identify what you are seeing, two more flicker by. Paik warped these rapid-fire snippets, distorting their colors, bending them into 3D shapes, pushing reality into abstraction. The mood of the videos is buoyant and celebratory but also giddy and a little tense. In short, it is a conflicted production, offering streams of joyous global imagery—of ancient culture, the avant-garde, and contemporary life—as it aims to overwhelm you. (Its title contains more than a hint of irony.) The structure itself, designed by architect Won Kim, suggests both the Tower of Babel and a traditional stone pagoda. (One of Paik’s inspirations was apparently Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919–20, a brave reference point in stridently anti-Communist 1980s South Korea.)

Paik was anticipating—and indulging—the gigantism and spectacle that would take over ever-expanding art museums in the coming decades. But while his sculpture awes, a sense of mischievous play is present. The monitors get smaller as the sculpture gets taller, as if it were trying, with a knowing wink, to exaggerate its already dramatic height, stretching to the heavens. And while they serve up all the imagery that a dutiful politician would like to see in such a public artwork, that material is always in flux, dissolving, disappearing, never quite willing to satisfy.

This complicated work was deeply personal for Paik, as an accompanying exhibition about its creation and restoration, “Merry Mix: The More, the Better,” details. (Its title comes from Paik’s quip that his art is a “merry mix of the old enfants terribles and the new.”) Paik had left Seoul with his family for Japan in 1950, just as the Korean War was beginning. He was eighteen, and as he gradually became a leading avant-garde figure, he vowed not to return home until democracy had been established there. He ended up coming back slightly before then, in 1984, and a brief film in the show—directed by the artist’s wife, Shigeko Kubota—shows him reuniting with family, signing autographs for young fans at the airport, and visiting his ancestors’ graves. Paik was reconnecting with his birthplace, and when tapped for the MMCA commission soon after, he was clearly determined to swing for the fences. (One telling fact: The work’s 1,003 screens allude to October 3, National Foundation Day, a holiday marking the legendary establishment of Korea in 2333 BCE.)

Construction of Nam June Paik’s The More, the Better, 1988, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, South Korea, 1988.

He delivered an artwork of raw charisma, and one that harbors pathos. His understanding was that the installation, running eight hours a day, would have a ten-year life span, and he gave permission for the TVs to be replaced. Consistent care is required to keep the tower going, and in 2003, all of its cathode-ray-tube monitors were swapped out for new ones (silver instead of black, with his approval). Paik died three years later. CRTs are ever harder to come by, but the MMCA scrounged around and this time replaced or repaired about three-quarters of them. (It also fixed insulation and other issues.) For the other quarter, LCDs were inserted into the CRT cases. They look a bit sharper to my eye, and their flat screens give them away, but the effect is otherwise essentially seamless.

As CRT parts become rarer, the work will continue to change, Ship of Theseus style. Many Paik experts surveyed by the MMCA called for replacing all the CRTs with LEDs, but the MMCA wanted to maintain as much of the original piece as possible for as long as possible. In-chul Kwon, who oversaw the work’s restoration, described the current approach as like “putting a ventilator on someone who’s dying.” (The restoration was budgeted at about $2.6 million: a small price to pay to keep a masterpiece alive.) It is now switched on for just two hours a day, four days a week. That is a regrettable compromise, but seeing the work shut down does at least underscore its mortality.

My one real complaint is that “Merry Mix” is a temporary show. (It closes February 26, 2023.) It is so jam-packed with treasures related to Paik and his TV tower that it should remain on view in perpetuity, detailing for all viewers the intense consideration—the love—that has gone into making and preserving the work. There are blueprints, models, and additional videos that Paik provided that can run on his screens (MMCA selected the ones that now appear), and one room presents Wrap Around the World, 1988, a broadcast with contributions from eleven countries that Paik staged to inaugurate The More, the Better, with David Bowie performing, Al Franken cohosting, and all sorts of other mayhem—a rollicking portrait of global interconnectedness. Today, as social networks with billions of users spread misinformation and foment violence, that kind of techno-optimism can feel as dated as some of Paik’s video effects.

But The More, the Better also has thorny truths to impart, as it links materials from disparate times and places, manipulates them in exhilarating fashion, and renders them almost illegible. Access to vast swaths of culture comes easy these days, it proposes, but understanding is another matter. It is a monument at once knowingly seductive and fragile. Those facts are intertwined. It will exist only for as long as we allow. For now, power flows through it.

Andrew Russeth is a writer in Seoul.

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