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October 19 2019
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Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456. A new exhibition of the artist’s work is on view at London’s Tate Modern through February 9.

No space-age wizard did more to fulfill Marshall McLuhan’s vision of the global media-scape than the Korean-American artist and inventor Nam June Paik, born in 1932. Like McLuhan, whose fussy professorial manner gave his gnomic pronouncements and paradoxes a Mad Hatter air (“Diaper spelled backwards is ‘repaid,’ think about it”), Paik was a master of the earnest put-on—a playful provocateur. Father of video art and an early adopter of robotics, Paik grasped—pace McLuhan—that consumer technology wasn’t merely an entertainment platform but a sensory environment, a revolutionary mode of perception, and a cultural accelerator. (Paik coined the phrase “electronic superhighway” long before Al Gore embraced the concept.)

Television consoles of all sizes were Paik’s building blocks and Erector Sets, converted into sculpture (Lion), furniture (TV Chair), aquariums (Video Fish), a family tree (Family of Robot), and wearable devices (TV Bra, ingeniously covering the breasts of the topless avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman). One of his most evocative works, TV Buddha, features a stone Buddha staring blankly at its own image on a closed-circuit monitor: the medium is the meditation. Now London’s Tate Modern hosts a robot-happy, screen-packed retrospective of Paik’s work, including his monumental Sistine Chapel. —James Wolcott

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