Today marks the 10th anniversary of Nam June Paik’s death in Miami, FL, and two weeks since my departure from New York. Hardly similar events, but related nonetheless. To celebrate these poetically tragic detours, I write about two very important characters in my life’s journey.
Ah, New York. The bustling chaotic metropolis is simply unmatched by any other city on the planet.
The Big Apple will crush your soul, it will consume you down to your very last desire to find true love, to experience romance, to find happiness. It will push you to the edge of hopelessness, of sexual deviance, of utter mental, emotional and physical chaos. Its massive concrete jungle filled with seemingly endless towering buildings will make you feel infinitely smaller than you ever thought possible. Its purposely segregated architectural landscape will force you to understand how and why anyone bases the value of human contact on how many train transfers it takes to get to the desired destination. Its inexplicably high rental prices will drive you into living situations you never thought you could live through. Its endless status-driven preoccupation will ultimately transform you into an emotionally jaded, physically superficial, and mentally unbalanced human being.
But who doesn’t love New York?
All of the gut-wrenching qualities of life in the big city are equaled, if not topped by, the absolute energy found in its magnetic pulse. New York will lure you with its sexiness, its realness, and its unparalleled cultural scene. It will make you dizzy with the endless options of fantastic food and delicious libations, all of which are sure to warm your soul even in its darkest nights. Its jaw-dropping array of the best-of-the-best in the art world, from the operatic voices flowing from The Met to the graffiti laden streets, will remind you of just how blessed you are to even walk the streets of such an artistic powerhouse. Its seemingly ubiquitous presence in a ridiculously large number of films and television shows spanning decades, make you proud to be part of its wonderful popular culture landscape, even if only for a day.
The city is so special precisely for its inherently unique ability to be both loved and hated within the same breath. Everything about NYC is amazingly wonderful and chaotic. Sure, New York is not for everyone, nor should it be for a lifetime, but truly experiencing this city should be a pre-requisite for living one’s life to the fullest. If you can survive New York, you can survive anything. In fact, gorgeous/terrible arts, culture, theories, experiments, and adventures continue to survive within our collective memories, contributing, little by little, to our misunderstood existential selves.
One such contribution, perhaps the most important, lies within the insanely rich and diverse avant-garde scene of the 1960’s, which will likely survive and remain unparalleled until the end of time. And lucky for the rest of us, Paik just happened to be at the right place, at the right time.
In 1964, a 32-year old Nam June Paik moved to an apartment in the Villages (most likely SoHo), and spent most of his life there creating artworks that would go on to fundamentally change the course of human communication and artistic creation. While he had lived in South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany before moving to the U.S., his relationship with NYC nonetheless became a complex one. After all, he was a single, 30-something immigrant artist just trying to make it in the world.
In some ways, aren’t we all trying to do just that?
While Paik was already a well-known artist by the time he arrived in the U.S., it was likely the city’s wonderful chaos that pushed him personally and professionally to create art that he may not have created otherwise. His pursuit of knowledge was fundamentally tied into arts-based research and experimentation, and what better place to intertwine life and art than in New York?
There are many reasons the city provided such a fruitful landscape to the endless boundary pushing of avant-garde artists in the ‘60s, one of which was – ironically – super cheap housing. Many NYC neighborhoods were once down-right scary places, filled with illicit drugs and sex, as well as street violence and homelessness.
In fact, SoHo would not be the remarkable neighborhood it is today without George Maciunas, the founder of the Fluxus avant-garde movement (of which Paik was a pioneering member). Maciunas was a notable and central figure not only in gentrifying SoHo, but in kick starting the gentrification movement within New York and beyond.
And how did that all begin? As an avant-garde art experiment, of course.
An experiment of which I wanted to partake in, even this many decades later. My academic mentor once advised me, “do not follow in the footsteps of the master, but seek what they sought” (a wonderful saying from Japanese poet Mashuo Bashō). And so I have. I am. And I continue to do so. But it is no easy feat.
Since embarking on the life long journey of academic and creative pursuits, I have lived in Florida, South Korea, and most recently, New York. In all three places I have shared a spiritual space with Paik. Coincidence? Yes and no.
Yes, I have followed in my master’s footsteps (to an extent), but I also continue to seek what he sought, many times unknowingly. New York was a game changer for me, as I did not live my life inside the walls of the museum archives researching historical data on Paik or the avant-garde. Instead:
I walked the streets and breathed in the surprisingly fresh city air.
I locked myself in the apartment and read and wrote and danced.
I practiced yoga with strangers and exercised alone.
I ate wonderfully cheap food and ordered delivery on the regular.
I crossed paths with many people, most insignificant and some perhaps not.
I took the train often and enjoyed the journey always.
I spent some time being a tourist and much time doing nothing.
I experienced life in a new way. I experimented with life in a new way. I lived life in a new way. I sought what my master sought, and I am still finding all that it has to offer me. And for that, I am glad.