Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik

Charlotte Moorman
born 1933 in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
died 1991 in New York, USA

Nam June Paik
born 1932 in Seoul, South Korea
died 2006 in Miami, Florida, USA


Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik helped transform our idea of the artistic potential of video and television. As a student of music history, art history and philosophy at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote his thesis on modernist composer Arnold Shoenberg, he met composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who inspired him to explore electronic art. He was also influenced by John Cage – whom he met in 1958 — and Cage's open ideas on composition and randomness, and by his own involvement with the Fluxus movement. From that time, he treated video art as one long performance.

In 1963, Paik began buying second-hand television sets and adapting them as video sculptures, using magnets on the back of the monitor to displace the electron beams thereby distorting normal reception. In Electronic blues, for example, the faces of major political figures such as Richard Nixon underwent rubbery transformations as if revealing true feelings – anxiety, despair, hilarity – behind the solemn mask.

By 1969, the Paik–Abe video synthesiser was one of the first artist-made video image processors that produced abstract patterns on TV from speech a viewer made through a microphone. Paik believed that video art helped people talk back to the machines that otherwise were in the hands of big corporations.

For his first solo exhibition, in 1963, inspired by minimalist sculpture, Paik filled a German gallery with stacked altered television sets on their sides and upside down. This multiplying of screens displaced both the image and the viewer. Many years later, Paik used laser projections and clusters of over a thousand TV screens facing up from the floor as a visually saturating form of sculptural environment. The rapidly changing imagery made for vertigo-inducing displays.

Through films, performances and installations, Paik remodelled our ways of seeing the temporal image in contemporary art, transforming museum architecture into dynamic audiovisual spaces, with such multiple-monitor installations as Video fish 1975, TV garden 1974, and TV clock 1963. While in works such as Real fish/live fish 1982, TV chair 1968 and Video Buddha 1976, Paik employed video-cameras and monitors to explore our perceptions of both external objects and ourselves and to create a profound sense of how we understand the world. His projects for television included collaborations with friends Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, David Bowie, Cage and Merce Cunningham. He was married to fellow video artist Shigeko Kubota.

Left partially paralysed by a stroke in 1996, Paik died on 29 January 2006.

See also Nam June Paik website.

Charlotte Moorman
While Paik was trained as a classical pianist, Charlotte Moorman trained as a classical cellist, studying under Leonard Rose at Julliard School in New York before becoming a member of the American Symphony Orchestra. Through her friendship with flatmate Yoko Ono, she became increasingly involved with the avant-garde scene in New York and emerged as a key figure in ‘new music’. 

In 1966, artist Joseph Beuys created his work Infiltration Homogen für Cello, a felt-covered violoncello, in Moorman’s honour. In 1967, she achieved notoriety for her semi-nude performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique, which resulted in her arrest on charges of indecent exposure; she was given a suspended sentence. Both artists were taken from the stage to the station in a convoy of 16 police cars. The incident gave her nationwide fame as the ‘topless cellist’. Moorman is also renowned for her performance of Paik’s TV bra for living sculpture 1969 with two small television tubes encased in plexiglas boxes attached to her breasts.

As well as her role as a performer, Moorman acted as a spokesperson for art, earning a reputation as the ‘Jeanne d’Arc of new music’ and negotiating with city bureaucrats to support the staging of often controversial and challenging performances. In 1963, she established the New York Avant Garde Festival, which played annually in various locations including Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry until 1980. In the late 1970s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy and further treatment and continued performing through the 1980s in spite of pain and deteriorating health. Moorman died on 8 November 1991, aged 57.

Read more about Moorman and Paik’s 1976 Kaldor project.



Relevant works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection

Nam June Paik
Buddha game 1991

Global groove 1973

Peter Callas
Kiru umi no yoni / cutting like the ocean 1986

Robert Filliou
From political to poetical economy 1977–79