Monday, February 13, 2006

The Death of Nam June Paik

When Roberta Smith's obituary on Nam June Paik appeared on Tuesday, January 31, 2005, in The New York Times, it certainly was a shock. Of course, his health had not been the best since his stroke more than a decade ago, but he maintained his vitality and his incredible enthusiasm through it all.

That evening, still reeling from the news, I received a phone call from his widow, Shigeko Kubota, inviting Larry and me to the funeral on Friday. Getting to Campbell's Funeral Home at 3:00 PM that Friday afternoon, we were amazed to see such a crowd. There was to be a memorial at The Mark Hotel immediately after the funeral service; the crowd at the funeral was filled with so many people who had been part of the artworld from the 1960s on. Nam June was an artist who transcended many barriers and many genres, as well as a true innovator who pioneered in creating something that had previously been unknown and unimagined: "video art." Nam June's nephew, Ken Paik Hakuta, ended the eulogies to his uncle with an attempt to revive the old Fluxus spirit by having people cut off their neckties (in homage to Nam June's infamous 60s performance when he cut off John Cage's necktie) ; of course, the majority of Nam June's friends weren't wearing neckties! But Ken didn't need to do that, because the spirit of Nam June was apparent in the reception afterwards, in which people were just so enthusiastic. The exuberance wasn't because we were happy that Nam June was no longer with us, but because we all felt we had been so fortunate to have known him. At one point, I overheard a young woman on her cellphone say, "Oh, I'm at this fabulous artworld party! It happens to be the memorial for Nam June Paik, but it's just so friendly!"

There's a moment in The Magnificent Ambersons when Joseph Cotten explains how Dolores Costello has made a factory tour into a warm and gracious visit, and that was what Nam June's funeral was like: what would have been a sad occasion became a celebration of this singular man, a true visionary artist. Now that the digital revolution is upon us, transforming telecommunications and media, it's incredible to think that, in the early 1960s, Nam June was the person who had the foresight to imagine a world in which video could be an artform. We're all indebted to him, and that was why the reception turned into a real celebration.


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