Nam June Paik’s TV Buddhas – His best-known work

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Nam June Paik - TV Buddha, 1974:2002

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha, 1974/2002, Statue of Buddha, TV monitor, closed-circuit camera, color, silent, dimensions variable, collection of the Nam June Paik Art Center

Published: June 10, 2019

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Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha

This renowned artwork by Paik depicts a sculpture of a Buddha from the 18th century posed with a symbolic hand gesture called mudra1 which is for tranquil meditation. A video camera is placed in front of the Buddha recording the statue while playing this projected image on a white TV screen that looks futuristic. This work induces the feeling that the Buddha is doomed to be forever caught in the closed-circuit loop that is the infinite play of his reflection on the TV screen.

Different themes discussed in this artwork

This installation highlights the difference between East vs. West and also pits the modern or futuristic elements vs. historical. It also encompasses other themes such as the hold of screens on society and the display of issues such as religion and history on screens. Paik succeeded in the juxtaposition of modernization and emerging technologies with religious and historical themes in his society at that time and hence encode these messages in the form of images into the installation.

Vanity of modern times & constant surveillance

The installation also conveys the vanity of modern times with the Buddha contemplating and absorbed in his own image like the society’s self-absorption, something that is driven by the media and technology. Another message that the installation conveys is that of surveillance. With the Buddha watching himself and the audience viewing the art installation, Paik shows the constant surveillance fuelled by technology and the media and therefore, he succeeded in using art as a code to convey certain messages to audiences.

The role of the viewer

The artwork and the visual symbols therein are Paik’s transmission and the audience viewing this act as translators by decoding these visual symbols and images in the art form and analyzing their meaning based on their own experiences. Therefore, he ensured that the transmission is ambiguous such that different interpretations and cultural inferences can be translated to shape a better understanding of the society then and now.

Nam June Paik - TV Buddha, 1985, Museo Madre, Napoli, photo Amedeo Benestante

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha, 1985, Museo Madre, Napoli, photo: Amedeo Benestante

How it was conceived

TV Buddha was produced to fill an empty wall in Paik’s fourth show in New York’s Galeria Bonino just shortly before its opening and depict the many antitheses that are present in society and people’s personalities. Paik made use of technology as a form of expression. He then used a closed-circuit video to observe the relationship between technology and humanity.

Nam June Paik - Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand, 2005 Single-channel video (color, silent) with televisions, closed-circuit video (colour), and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions

Nam June Paik – Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand, 2005, single-channel video (color, silent) with televisions, closed-circuit video (color) and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, overall dimensions variable, Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, photo: Benjamin Blackwell

About the artist

Nam June Paik was a Korean American artist born in 1932 and died in 2006. He was influenced by the Fluxus movement whose main aim was to make art available to the masses by involving them and relying on their translation in the outcome of their art pieces.

Nam June Paik and his Buddha TV 1974, pictured at Projects - Nam June Paik, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, Eric Kroll

Nam June Paik and his Buddha TV, 1974, at Projects: Nam June Paik (August 29-October 10, 1977), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, photo: Eric Kroll

Selected works

Buddha Watching TV, 1974/1997
Nam June Paik – Buddha Watching TV, 1974/1997, Stone sculpture, soil, closed-circuit video camera, video monitor, tripod, plywood base, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Nam June Paik – Buddha Watching TV, 1974/1997, Stone sculpture, soil, closed-circuit video camera, video monitor, tripod, plywood base, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

1974/1997 - Nam June Paik - Buddha Watching TV, 1974:1997 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Nam June Paik – Buddha Watching TV, 1974/1997, Stone sculpture, soil, closed-circuit video camera, video monitor, tripod, plywood base, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

1974/1997 - Nam June Paik - Buddha Watching TV, 1974:1997 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Nam June Paik – Buddha Watching TV, 1974/1997, Stone sculpture, soil, closed-circuit video camera, video monitor, tripod, plywood base, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

TV Buddha, 1976
Nam June Paik - TV Buddha, 1976, television monitor, video camera, painted wooden Buddha, tripod, plinth monitor 32 x 32 x 32cm, Buddha 75 x 36 x 36 cm, John Kaldor Family Gallery, Art Gallery NSW

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha, 1976, television monitor, video camera, painted wooden Buddha, tripod, plinth monitor 32 x 32 x 32cm, Buddha 75 x 36 x 36 cm, John Kaldor Family Gallery, Art Gallery NSW

TV Buddha, 1992
Nam June Paik - TV Buddha, 1992, Buddha, monitor, CCTV camera, 134.6 x 210.8 × 55.9 cm, 53.0 x 83.0 × 22.0 in

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha, 1992, Buddha, monitor, CCTV camera, 134.6 x 210.8 × 55.9 cm, 53.0 x 83.0 × 22.0 in, James Cohan Gallery

Nam June Paik - TV Buddha, 1992, Buddha, monitor, CCTV camera, 134.6 x 210.8 × 55.9 cm, 53.0 x 83.0 × 22.0 in

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha, 1992, Buddha, monitor, CCTV camera, 134.6 x 210.8 × 55.9 cm, 53.0 x 83.0 × 22.0 in, James Cohan Gallery

Tv Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004
Nam June Paik - TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.)

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed-circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.), Harvard Art Museums

Nam June Paik - TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.)

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed-circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.), Harvard Art Museums

Nam June Paik - TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.)

Nam June Paik – TV Buddha (Bronze Seated Buddha), 2004, Video installation with closed-circuit camera, black and white JVC television, and bronze Buddha statue with permanent oil marker, 55 × 50.8 × 40.6 cm (21 11/16 × 20 × 16 in.), Harvard Art Museums

Golden Buddha, 2005
Nam June Paik - Golden Buddha, 2005, closed-circuit video (color) with television and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, 46 1/2 × 106 × 31 3/4 inches (118.1 × 269.2 × 80.6 cm)

Nam June Paik – Golden Buddha, 2005, closed-circuit video (color) with television and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, 118.1 × 269.2 × 80.6 cm (46 1/2 × 106 × 31 3/4 in.), photo: Erich Koyama

Nam June Paik - Golden Buddha, 2005, closed-circuit video (color) with television and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, 46 1:2 × 106 × 31 3:4 inches (118.1 × 269.2 × 80.6 cm)

Nam June Paik – Golden Buddha, 2005, closed-circuit video (color) with television and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, 118.1 × 269.2 × 80.6 cm (46 1/2 × 106 × 31 3/4 in.), photo: Erich Koyama

All images unless otherwise noted: Estate of Nam June Paik & Nam June Paik Art Center.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra
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