“A Tale of Two Men, Some Machines, and Movements: Nam June Paik and Johnny Manahan” by: Carlos Celdran
(Left) Johnny Manahan in front of stills from his video artwork for the 1982 Paris Biennale. Image courtesy of the Manahan family. Thank you Rogue Magazine.
(Right) “TV Buddha”, Nam June Paik, 2002, monitor, video camera, buddha statue. Courtesy Leon Gallery and Gagosian Gallery NYC.
In the age of iPhones and Instagram, when practically every Tom, Dick, and Jillian has been given the permission to christen themselves as artists, pioneers, and influencers, there are people we forget to credit for blurring the lines between technology and art. One of them is Nam June Paik, a Korean-American artist and founder of the “video art” movement.
Nam June Paik (July 20, 1932 – January 29, 2006) was a mid-20th century Korean-American artist. Born in the city of Seoul, Korea, his family fled the Korean War (1950-1953) to live in HongKong. Soon thereafter, they moved to Tokyo where Nam would finish his music degree at the University of Tokyo in 1956. After further musical studies in Munich, Paik eventually established his artistic career in New York City by the early 1960s.
New York City in the early 1960s was integral to Paik’s ideas and influences. This environment would throw him in with the likes of John Cage and Joseph Beuys. He would join the Neo-Dadaists, become fast friends with Yoko Ono, and become one of the most prominent figures to come out of New York’s Fluxus movement. He would do projects with digital engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya and experiment with transmissions and monitors. Paik would construct robots, create installations, and collaborate with creatives from different fields at a time when multi-media and cross-disciplinary works were pretty much perceived as voodoo by the art establishment.
His work would become watershed moments in the field of installation art via “TV Buddha” (1974), an assemblage which has a Buddha with a video, contemplating itself, as well as performance and sound art, with his “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1975), a collaboration with cellist Charlotte Moorman. His visionary nature even extended to the term, “Electronic Super Highway”, something he coined in 1974, two decades before the world wide web. He was pioneering and his work broke ceilings. Paik’s acceptance into the New York avant-garde scene was groundbreaking for Asian-American artists and a great moment for immigrants and refugee artists seeking to express themselves in a pre-Trump world.
On closer shores, there’s another man we should give credit for pushing envelopes and mixing art and tech. That artist comes to us in the form of Johnny Manahan (b. February 11, 1947). Yes. That Johnny Manahan.
Okay. I can hear you all gasping from way over here. “Wait. Whut? But.. but.. Johnny Manahan is showbiz.” Yes, he is indeed, but Johnny Manahan is also a man firmly rooted in the visual arts. Much like Paik, Manahan is a worldly man and a product of a generation molded by free-thinking in a time of conflict. Educated by the Jesuits in Ateneo de Manila and tempered by the liberal values of a Vietnam-era University of California Berkley. Johnny Manahan experimented, painted, sculpted, studied, collaborated, and mixed up concepts and media just like Paik a generation before.
At the dawn of Martial Law in 1972, Filipino conceptual artist, Roberto Chabet, included Manahan in his annual “THIRTEEN ARTISTS” exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Manahan exhibited the works, “Self Portrait with Lens Cap On” (1972), a collection of 36 photos (one whole roll) of dark self-portraits, punctuated by the word ‘Kodak’ and “I will Breathe, Scale in time: 1:27 components, Plastic Bag Covering Head, CO2, O2,”, an installation that featured a video monitor and 19 pieces of 11×17 photographic stills from the video itself, that of Manahan smoking a cigarette with a bag over his head. These works which combined photos, video electronics, logos, and performance were important for its time. It was rebellious by blurring the lines between video/photography as art-slash-documentation, prophetic in its reference to self-portraits in a pre-selfie age, and a brave choice of media when collectors didn’t see photography as a serious investment just yet.
Manahan’s works at the CCP in 1972 was meta before meta was coined, post-modern before post-modern was post-modern, and it placed Manahan firmly in the history books as the artist responsible for the first documented video art piece in the Philippines and perhaps in Southeast Asia itself. By 1982, Manahan would ease away from the art world, giving up the television monitor as an art form in order to work for the screen itself as producer and director of shows like “Two for the Road”, “Chika Chika Chicks”, and “Palibhasa Lalake”.
Backing away, I can see that there are lessons to be learned from these two. The obvious lessons being that art isn’t bound by anything, art isn’t easy to define and art is in a constant state of flux. The less obvious lesson though is about humanity and the need to collaborate with the world around us. As Nam June Paik used his creativity to humanize new technology and as Johnny Manahan moved his process away from the isolation of a gallery into the realm of mass culture. In the end, whether highbrow or lowbrow, we can see it’s all the same. Art is all about finding ways to connect to one another, no matter what.
Now think about that the next time you look at your cellphone.
“Nam June Paik in Manila”, will open on October 22 at the Leon Gallery in Legaspi Village. The show is a collaboration between Leon International and the Gagosian Gallery, who represent Mr. Paik’s estate.
Credits: Lisa Chikiamko for the research. Singapore National Gallery. The Manahan Family Photo collection, Leon Gallery, Gagosian Gallery, Rogue Magazine, Art Asia-Pacific.