Transmission and a Selection from 32 Cars for the 20th Century - Play Mozart's Requiem Quietly

Nam June Palik Sydney Opera House Forecourt 8 -26 January 2004 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 26 February - April 2004

Living in the world of the 21st century means living in a world of changing technology. You can buy the most state-of-the-art computer with all of the most modern gadgets and five years later it is 'old'. Ten years later it is just junk. Technology gets old so fast, it is easy for anyone, even someone who was an expert ten years ago, to feel like they are 'getting old'just as obsolescent as the hardware itself.

At first this seems to be the main theme of two exhibitions of Nam June Paik's work shown recently at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt and the National Gallery of Australia.

A selection from 32 Cars for the 20th Century – Play Mozart's Requiem Quietly forms the major part of both exhibitions. The work features old cars which have been stripped, painted silver and filled with bits of old, and now useless, technological junk. The silver is reminiscent of the way people used to think the future would look, like in the futurist Woody Allen comedy from the 1970s, Sleepers. The cars just sit there, looking disused, firstly around an old-fashioned radio tower beaming lasers (Transmission) out the front of the Sydney Opera House and then in one of the modern art galleries at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The classical sounds of Mozart's Requiem playing in the background are also evocative of times gone by.

32 Cars is about technological obsolescence and to some extent is an expression of Paik's own feeling of getting old. Paik, often hailed as the 'father of video art', was one of the first to experiment with the form about fifty years ago. He is now in his seventies, and had a debilitating stroke in 1996, which interrupted his career. However, Paik is far from obsolete, and even now is on the forefront of technological innovation in art.

Nam June Paik started his artistic career as a musician and performance artist. In the early 1960s, as part of the Fluxus movement, he began experimenting with musical theatre events/happenings designed to shock the audience. In one performance he threw things at the audience, beat his head against a piano, doused himself with shaving cream and flour and jumped into a bath of water, emerging soaked to play a 'sentimental salon piece' (The Worlds of Nam June Paik, John G. Hanhardt, Guggenheim Musem, 2000).

During this time, Paik also formed a long and intimate collaboration with Charlotte Moorman, also a performance artist and a cellist. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Paik and Moorman collaborated in groundbreaking performance pieces designed to eroticise music, including one occasion where Moorman was arrested for a topless performance of one of the works. In 1976 Moorman performed the legendary Sky Kiss where she and her cello were suspended by helium balloons outside the Sydney Opera House.

In the 1960s Paik also developed a fascination with technology, in particular, with television and video, and he was one of the first artists to experiment with video/new media art. For a number of years, he not only experimented with the images produced by screens, but with the screens themselves, using them as objects of sculpture. During this time, Paik created playful works like Real Fish/Live Fish from 1982 where one television monitor, cleaned out and used as a fish tank, has a video camera pointing at it with the 'live' footage of the fish showing on the television sitting next to it.

These groundbreaking works of video art are often seen as emblematic of Paik's career, but he has moved on. He dislikes being identified solely as a video artist - in an interview in Village Voice in 2002, he said 'Long time do the same thing'. After the stroke, he began to form plans for his latest obsession - lasers.

The more innovative and significant of the two works on show at the Sydney Opera House is Transmission, an old radio tower that beams a laser light show through the night (though 32 Cars is more attention-grabbing, at least in the daytime).

The original version of this exhibition was set up at the Rockefeller Centre in New York in 2002 and was a performance piece (harking back to Paik's performances with Fluxus in the sixties). On opening night, Paik played the piano which sent commands to a hard drive modulating a laser beam. Collaborator and laser expert Norman Ballard helped Paik to realise this vision.

Transmission proves that Paik is as much at the forefront of contemporary art as ever, despite 32 Cars' theme of obsolescence. Indeed, it is a shame that Transmission could not be shown at the NGA and that Paik was too ill to travel to Australia and give the performance that should accompany these exhibitions.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.