비디오아트의 아버지, 백남준의 손이라 불린 사나이, 이정성 씨
Lee Jung-sung was running an electronics shop in Seoul in 1988 when he first met Nam June Paik, the father of video art. For nearly two decades thereafter, Lee worked as Paik’s project technician and main collaborator. Lee is still busy these days overseeing the late virtuoso’s legacy, restoring and maintaining his works. ‘Nam June Paik Art Center’ is located in Yong-in City. We can meet his masterpieces anytime.
Behind Nam June Paik, the world’s first video artist, there was Lee Jung-sung. Their first collaborative work was a tower of 1,003 TV sets titled “The More the Better” (Dadaikseon, 1988). In the ensuing 18 years, Lee engineered the installation of Paik’s artworks, and as they crisscrossed the globe, Lee morphed into Paik’s closest collaborator and source of ideas. It could be said that Nam June Paik’s brain soared on the wings of Lee Jung-sung’s hands, and Lee Jung-sung’s hands were able to build amazing things because of Nam June Paik’s brain.
Lim Hee-yun: So how did you meet Nam June Paik?
Lee: I have to set the scene first. The household appliances trade show in Korea began in 1986. The Seoul International Trade Fair opened in what is now the COEX Convention Centre in Samseong-dong, and the competition between Samsung and LG was really intense. They were having a battle of ideas, under strictest secrecy, to come up with the most innovative display for the grand opening. The Samsung side commissioned me to install a “TV wall.” I managed to build a wall of 528 TVs in little time, so after that they got me to do all the displays for the major Samsung Electronics stores in Seoul.
And then it was 1988. Mr. Paik was asking around for a technician to help build “The More the Better,” and eventually got in touch with me because I was doing that work for Samsung. He asked me, “Can you do me one with 1,003?” And, of course, I said, “Yes, I can do that.” I was thinking, “I did one with 528, just doubling the number shouldn’t mean it can’t be done.” At that point I had no idea about what an important figure Nam June Paik was, or what an embarrassment it would be on the global stage if we couldn’t pull it off. They say, don’t they, that you’re bravest when you know nothing.
Lim: Did the work on “The More the Better” go smoothly?
Lee: Mr. Paik tasked me with installing the 1,003 TVs and then he went off to America, simply saying, “Do a good job.” At the time, the biggest challenge to installing TVs on such a large scale was how to deal with the video feed. Even in Japan, they only had a device that could distribute video to six TVs simultaneously. And it was 500 dollars apiece, which was a lot of money. So I started making my own from scratch. In the end, the 1,003 TVs worked perfectly by the promised date of the live broadcast. It was the best feeling ever. I think Mr. Paik was really surprised, too. Later on, when he came back to Korea, he admitted to me, “To be honest, I thought if even half of them worked, it would be a big achievement.” Then he asked, “I have to make another work in New York. Could you do it?” And I responded, “Sure, yeah, why not?” The work was “Fin de Siecle II,” which was installed at the Whitney Museum in 1989.
After that one, Mr. Paik sent me to Switzerland where I couldn’t even speak the language. I had to install 80 TVs in a week, and because of my massive bag full of TV parts and tools, I was stopped by customs at Zurich Airport. I wrangled with the customs officer, speaking in Korean and making signs with my hands and feet. I managed to persuade the gallery to extend the time I was able to work until after closing. I finished the work in less than five days and was able to go off and do some sightseeing. That was when Mr. Paik really came to believe in my grit and adaptability.
Exchange of Ideas
Lim: You started out as a technician. How were you able to understand the creative world of Nam June Paik when even people in the art world at the time weren’t able to keep up with him?
Lee: I’ll turn that question around. Do you understand Picasso’s paintings? There’s no right answer when it comes to appreciating works of art. There’s nothing to wonder about with why people like a certain artwork either. You just need to feel for yourself, “That’s fun,” or “That looks good.” At the beginning, I also just passively made whatever Mr. Paik instructed me to make. But from some point or other, I started candidly proposing my ideas, too. If I were to say, “I think it would be good if we add something like this, what do you think?” he’d respond with, “Hey, buster, you should have said so from the beginning.” And then I realized, “Ah, if I suggest my ideas in advance, he really would take them on.” Yes, he would readily take on the advice I gave in consideration of the environment of the exhibition space and technological limitations.
Lim: Is there a lot involved to maintain Nam June Paik’s works? And what work do you do now aside from that?
Lee: Not long ago, I worked on restoring the work “108 Agonies” (1998) in Gyeongju. It was so damaged that it took me a whole week, and I also did some work on “Fractal Turtleship” (1993) at the Daejeon Museum of Art. Recently, I went over to the Whitney Museum in New York to help with the conservation of “Fin de Siecle II.” Aside from that, I give advice to young budding artists, and I occasionally give lectures, too. This autumn, there’s a big Nam June Paik retrospective in Nanjing, China, and I think I’ll have to work on that one, too. I also have to keep pouring my heart and soul into the organization of his archive.
Preservation and Restoration
Lim: Now the era of YouTube is in full swing. How do you look back on Nam June Paik’s art in this day and age?
Lee: He went around piling up debts to create innovative artworks, but with today’s technology he would have made loads of really unusual works. In his later years, he stopped doing video art and tried to go into laser art, but the overheads were just so high. He was just about able to use military-grade lasers. If lasers and LED had been in use when Mr. Paik was doing his work, we probably would have gotten to discover another Nam June Paik, entirely different from the one we know.
Lim: Do you still sometimes think of the days when you were working with Nam June Paik?
Lee: Of course. I was nothing but a technician, but since I worked with Mr. Paik on his artworks, I got to travel the world and wanted for nothing. To tell you the truth, even now, once or twice a month, I meet him in my dreams and we work together. It’s completely new work. In the dreams, we never work again on the works we made in the past. Maybe his insistence on always going after what’s new is still alive.
Lim Hee-yun, KOREA FOUNDATION