Review

The “Madman”

Kyung Keun Lee: Cooking about the Past, A Nam June Paik Memorial Performance
INMO Gallery
Los Angeles
Kyungmi Shin
Kyung Keun Lee, "Cooking about the Past," performance view, April 22, 2006. Photo: Young Chung.

Kyung Keun Lee, Cooking about the Past, performance view, April 22, 2006. Photo: Young Chung.

In the “Moving Theatre” in the street, the sounds move in the street, the audience meets or encounters them “unexpectedly” in the street. The beauty of moving theatre lies in this “surprise a priori”, because almost all of the audience is uninvited, not knowing what it is, why it is, who is the composer, the player, organizer—or better speaking— organizer, composer, player?1

Nam June Paik’s legacy is one of an object maker; and his impact on television and video art has been profound; among many others, Bill Viola, who interned with him in the ‘70s, lists Paik as an important influence. But Paik’s early performances in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, presented in the context of avant-garde theaters where music, art and film all mingled, were seminal in the formation of his art practice and philosophy.

Therefore, it was appropriate for Korean performance artist Kyung Keun Lee to present a performance piece in memory of this modern master and impresario. There has been a flurry of memorial events since Paik passed away on January 29th this year and—in the Paikian spirit—some featured unusual results. His memorial service in New York ended with everyone cutting off his or her neighbor’s necktie. Many video and film tributes have been held, including one at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, as well as one at the Tribeca Film Festival. The memorial performance event in Korea in March featured many re-enactments of Paik’s performances. For example, Solo for Violin, originally composed for one violin to be smashed against a table, was restaged as a group performance to the beat of Korean drums. The memorial performance presented at INMO gallery was in April in line with this spirit of re-enactment and included elements from some of Paik’s early performances. But the intervention of “the man on the street”— literally—made the performance more poignantly in line with the spirit of Paik’s work.

The intersection of 5th and Main streets in downtown LA, where INMO Gallery is located, bustles with life and surprising encounters. Also known as “the nickel,” it has been home to a transient population for decades, and, since the Reagan era, home as well to many who suffer from mental illness, dumped there as a place of last resort by an overwhelmed healthcare system. Recently, the nickel has become the center of a new downtown gallery development push. Many gallerists, encouraged by the low rent offered by developers hoping to create a SOHO effect, have opened up in the area to the dismay of the “homeless” people who live there. On Thursday “Artwalk” nights, Main Street looks like a scene from Midnight Cowboy, where the desperate and the well heeled brush against each other on the streets. Returning from a visit to these galleries, I once found a woman peeing behind my car in broad daylight while chatting casually with her companions a few feet away. This is the context where Lee’s memorial performance took place.

During the afternoon before the official performance began, artist Kyung Keun Lee dragged a cello through the streets surrounding the gallery followed by photographers and a videographer. At the beginning of this sojourn, as Lee was crossing the street, a young man jumped on the cello and broke it. He then demanded the performance artist take a picture and send it to him.

Accident, surprise, and violent interventions have always been important elements in Paik’s work. He was a volatile figure on stage. Paik would throw beans at the audience, weep, scream, pour a bag of flour or rice over himself, jump into a bathtub fully clothed, play a classical piece on piano, then hit the piano keyboard with his head. He once jumped into the audience and cut John Cage’s necktie. Paik’s work, never comfortable with passivity, inspired this same kind of mayhem in his peers. In response to Paik’s early object Klavier Integral, installed at the Galerie Parnass in 1963, Joseph Beuys gave an impromptu performance, destroying one of the Paik’s pianos with an ax. This was an extension of Paik’s own actions. The young man’s attack on the cello in downtown Los Angeles resonates with this spirit of spontaneous violence found in the work of both Beuys and Paik.

Kyung Keun Lee, "Cooking about the Past," performance views, April 22, 2006. Photos: Seung Jun Kim.

Kyung Keun Lee, Cooking about the Past, performance views, April 22, 2006. Photos: Seung Jun Kim.

Back at INMO gallery, Lee resumed his performance indoors. With a video projection of the Paik memorial event in Korea in the background, he wrote the names of dead artists such as Beuys, Cage and Paik in Chinese calligraphy with a jumbo size ketchup bottle on a stack of blank newsprint paper. Each sheet with a name was crumpled and thrown on a pile next to a drum of white paint. This continued until the entire bottle of ketchup was finished. Then Lee, with the help of the gallerist, Inmo Yuon, dipped the broken cello into the drum of white paint and announced, “We should eat now.” Over two pots of boiling water, the artist’s wife steamed dumplings. She dished them out onto plastic cups for the audience to take. When the meal was finished, the disposable plastic cups were put into the paint drum with the cello.

As the audience consumed the dumplings and reflected on the performance, the story about the broken cello and the homeless man was the hot topic. The performer and the crew had not anticipated this accident, and they were unsettled by the event. The videographer had stopped recording when the man jumped on the cello, presumably because it wasn’t a part of the performance. In the discussion that ensued, the artist and his crew referred to the un-looked-for and unnamed performer as “the madman.”

“Madman” is a term that aptly describes Nam June Paik. Though widely accepted in the context of avant-garde art in the West, back in Korea, Paik has, in the past, been regarded as an outsider and provocateur. He famously told Korean reporters in an interview on live television, “Art is fraud. You just have to do what nobody has done before.” In response to Paik’s cavalier attitude and Warholian disregard, the Korean media cast him as a mythical “madman.”

Despite the early misunderstanding of Paik in Korea, much of the spirit of Paik’s work is deeply rooted in Korean traditional shaman rituals. Korean shamans function as the surrogate voice for the sick, the distressed or the dead for whom they perform. In their trance state, shamans are able to speak the anger of, for example, the daughter-in-law whose anger can never be expressed in a traditionally patriarchal society. Shaman rituals are performed so unhappy souls can speak up, be consoled and sent properly on their way. In Korean culture, the shaman becomes the “madman” who dares to speak the truth like the European court jester who, through humor, can make fun of the king.

Paik’s performances served as cathartic shock treatments, very much like shaman rituals. Paik’s aesthetic was formed in the violent Japanese occupation of Korea, and as a nomadic artist in postwar Europe, his early performances occurred in the context of a Germany where the horrors of the war were still fresh in the psyche of society. Paik, like his Fluxus cohorts and the Viennese Actionists, found in performance art a form that served to exorcise the madness of human behavior.

Lee, invited by INMO Gallery to perform a memorial for Paik, is well known for exhibiting widely in the 1980s and early ‘90s in Korea. He had a solo show at Total Museum in 1991, and was included in the Young Minds exhibition in Kwangju Biennale in 1997. He immigrated to the US in 1997 for his daughter’s education and has not been active in the art scene since then. Like many Korean artists, Lee has been tremendously influenced by Paik’s practice, and approached this memorial performance invitation as a way of continuing Paik’s legacy.

During an interview at INMO a week after the performance, Lee said that Paik’s presence is like the sun to many Korean artists—ever-present and impossible to escape. Reflecting on his performance at the gallery, Lee talked of the “madman” resembling the artist and performer, and also about Susan Sontag’s reference to performance as hysteria.

Creating a tribute performance in memory of an artist whose work was predicated upon spontaneity and chance is not an easy feat. One might ask, what is the point of recreating an act that existed in a specific time and context? This memorial performance for Paik was saved from the fate of redundancy by an accidental intervention in the street. The transient population on 5th and Main are like the shamans who do not need to stay within social boundaries and can dare speak the truth about life in Los Angeles. Like it or not, the art audience must confront this theater of life and madness when they visit these downtown galleries. I can imagine Paik smiling at the idea.

Kyungmi Shin is an artist living in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in sculpture and installation at UC Berkeley and has shown extensively in the U.S. and Korea.

Footnotes

  1. Nam June Paik, “New Ontology of Music,” Postmusic, The Monthly Review of the University for Avantgarde Hinduism (New York: Fluxus Edition, 1963).
Further Reading