WEARING a tailor-made pink shirt marked with multi-colored strokes of acrylic paint, Ken Hakuta sat down to talk about the “father of video art” Nam June Paik — whom his family called their “crazy uncle.”
Mr. Hakuta — who is executor of the Nam estate — was in Manila to talk about his uncle and the first exhibition of works by the artist in the Philippines, Nam June Paik in Manila, which is on view at the Leon Gallery’s new space at the ground floor of Makati’s Corinthian Plaza.
The exhibit is a collaboration between Leon Gallery International and the Gagosian Gallery.
Korean-American artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) trained as a classical musician in Germany, then settled in New York City and explored video art. It was there where he became better acquainted with artists such as avant-garde composer John Cage and conceptual artist (among many other things) Joseph Beuys.
“He was interested in classical piano but then he realized he was not very good at it,” said the artist’s nephew (his uncle became Mr. Hakuta’s legal guardian when he went to New York as a child in 1964). “Then he wanted to be, for some reason, a classical music composer — then he realized he was not good at it either,” Mr. Hakuta said as he explained his uncle’s transition from a musician to video artist. “I’m serious, that’s what he told me. And then, he became very avant-garde.”

As an artist, Nam June Paik coined the term “electronic superhighway” to denote how advancements in technology connect people and have a lasting impact on their lives.
Among the emerging technologies of that time, the artist was particularly fascinated by television.
“I was his interpreter for television. Given that he made a career out of making art out of television, he never watched television. I would tell him what was going on television then he’d steal my ideas. And he never gave me credit,” Mr. Hakuta said, jokingly.
“I guess he found it (television) very new and very exciting. He wanted to try something different… I guess he was just very creative. He thought this would be a completely new area,” Mr. Hakuta said, adding that the style was “visionary” since few households had television sets in the 1960s.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ website, “Nam June Paik transformed video into an artist’s medium with his media-based art that challenged and changed our understanding of visual culture. As Paik wrote in 1969, he wanted ‘to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo, as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.’”
The Leon Gallery exhibit will showcase 24 pieces from 1983 to 2005 such as One Candle, in which a lit candle is placed inside the casing of a TV; and TV Buddha, which features a statue of the Gautama Budhha facing a TV screen which is showing a video feed of its image.
Describing the two works as “highly intellectual, yet sarcastically funny,” Mr. Hakuta said that his uncle was also fascinated by zen and Buddhism which is reflected on the use of the Buddha and the candle in his works.
“He is probably the most relevant artist in modern art. He is a game-changer. He changed the way we see things. [He turned] technology into art,” Leon Gallery director Jaime Ponce de Leon told BusinessWorld at the exhibit’s press launch in Makati last week.

It was through Mr. Ponce De Leon’s friendship with Mr. Hakuta that the idea of mounting an exhibit started. “Through Ken, there was an introduction (with the Gagosian Gallery). We expressed our interest, and that was how it came about,” Mr. Ponce De Leon said.
He said that it was a “difficult” negotiation with the prestigious gallery. “We had to rely on the Gagosian’s own research on how Leon Gallery fared in a national context, because an entity like the Gagosian gallery will not just partner with anybody who does not have the wherewithal to mount an exhibition or the reputation to be at par with them,” he told BusinessWorld. “They did their research and we are fortunate to say that they have decided to pursue the partnership.”
“We are delighted to collaborate with Leon Gallery in bringing the work of Nam June Paik to Manila,” Nick Simunovic, managing director of the Gagosian Hong Kong, told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that Paik was one of five or six most important artists of the 20th century. In addition to inventing video art, he helped establish the fields of performance and installation art. His influence on other artists and on art history itself cannot be overstated,” Mr. Simunovic wrote.
“At the same time, Paik’s enormous contribution remains largely unknown and underappreciated. The exhibition in Manila aims to share his work with a broader audience in Southeast Asia,” he wrote.
For Mr. Hakuta, the exhibit is an opportunity for the Filipino audience to learn and appreciate video art.
“It’s not the matter of catching up. It’s the matter of learning this, because Nam June Paik’s art is very sophisticated. And yet, a child would enjoy it,” he said. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman
Leon Gallery’s new space is at the ground floor of the Corinthian Plaza, 121 Paseo de Roxas, Makati City.