Internationally known American artist Nam June Paik’s monumental 1992 sculpture “PBS: 1967-2000” in downtown Trenton is back.
Fashioned with 52 television monitors and neon linguistic symbols by one of the nation’s most innovative 20th century artists, the sculpture housed in the former New Jersey Network Broadcasting building had been neglected after the administration of former governor Chris Christie pulled the plug on NJN and closed the building in 2011.
But recent efforts by concerned arts leaders at Artworks Trenton and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts have brought the electronic work back to life and made it and its creator the subject of an Artworks exhibition on view Saturday, September 14, through Saturday, October 19.
Cited by the Smithsonian Institute as an artist whose art work and ideas “were a major influence on late 20th-century art and continue to inspire a new generation of artists,” Paik (1936-2006) is known for coupling new aesthetic concepts with new technologies — something in the plan when the state Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) built the building and commissioned the artist.
“Paik is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He always did work to challenge sculpture and visual art in general. And he is the grandfather of video art,” says Trenton resident and artist Tom Moran outside his office at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton.
Moran should know. In addition to his role as the current chief curator of Grounds For Sculpture, he is the former New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA) public art coordinator and headed the team that brought the Paik sculpture to the capital city. (And I should know because I worked with Moran on several New Jersey public arts projects).
As Moran says during the interview and through archived state materials, the project reflected an innovation in state regulations and optimism for the city.
It was 1988 and a new Trenton Office Complex was envisioned. “The building was daring. It was the first time the state was building a multi-use space after the guidelines of the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC).”
“The installation of the Nam June Paik artwork was a concerted effort by the State of New Jersey, NJSCA, City of Trenton, and the NJEDA,” notes Moran.
It was also in compliance with the state’s arts inclusion legislation that stipulates up to 1.5 percent of the total cost of a public building be allocated to art that would enhance both building and community.
The protocol for selecting the public art and engaging artists includes the establishment of a selection committee representing various stakeholders, including the state divisions utilizing the building — in this case the Department of Motor Vehicles and New Jersey Network. Other members included representatives of the State Treasury and CCRC.
“The committee selected Mr. Paik, the world-renowned multimedia artist and pioneer of the video art, to submit a proposal for this major new public building,” Moran states in an archived letter.
Moran says there were several reasons to think of Paik. With “mixed use, post office, and restaurants, it was a visionary plan for Trenton. The whole idea was to slow people down to stay in Trenton and to make it a destination place. There could have been a tendency to create art work that was internal, but this was intended to make the work be seen from the outside — designed to interact with the redevelopment of this part of town.”
Moran says Paik had affiliations throughout the New York and New Jersey area, interacted with the Rutgers faculty, and was a member of the innovative and exploratory Fluxus and pop art movements, which had strong connections to Rutgers artists, including George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein.
“The major intersection (to attract Paik’s interest) was with New Jersey Network and then the Sarnoff connection,” says Moran.
The Sarnoff Center on Route 1 in West Windsor is an acknowledged home of television and video technology — especially the advancement of the cathode ray technology to generate screen images.
“We realized we could tie in a major device that had been developed in this area,” says Moran. “I believe that is why (Paik) took the job. How could he say no to that? It links to the greater Trenton area — and Trenton Makes the World Takes.”
Paik took on the project and “brought a lot of interest and that brought in a lot of content, such as the neon. There are several different languages because television touches so many cultures in the world. One side has language and diagrammatic images of the cathode ray tube.”
In addition to referencing the broadcast station client and New Jersey innovation, Paik took the work to another dimension. “He made it a retrospective of all the artists that he worked with. He basically created a video collage. He would pull images from the broadcasts and then images of artists he worked with. Some of the monitors were live feeds, and this was before the word ‘streaming’ was used.”
The project also reflects Paik’s general approach to creating art. Although the Korean-born Paik was originally a musician and composer, he changed direction after meeting and working with avant-garde artists and theoreticians John Cage and Fluxus founder George Maciunas. Paik began creating visual and performance art using nontraditional media such as electricity and broadcast audio and imagery. In one interview Paik says his early interest was in humanizing technology. Paik is also credited with coining the phrase “telecommunication superhighway.”
“The way he works is at a master control board like a TV editor,” says Moran. “There is a laser disc that contains the brain of the imagery of visual things he gathered.”
Thinking back on the project, Moran says, “I created a wish list of artists and created a book for all the panelists. What kind of great artist could we bring to Trenton? It was a mixture of (the NJSCA’s) slide registry and list of prominent artists. The panel ended up picking up three of the premiere artists working at the time. “
In addition to Paik, respected national public art artists were selected: R.M. Fisher to create a sculpture on the broadcast tower and Larry Kirkland to create art at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The project cost was $500,000.
“It is one of the greatest projects of the state’s arts inclusion,” says Moran. “It broke the mold of a state building to have something dynamic and different. It wasn’t a sculpture or mural, traditional approaches. But it fit the theme of the building. I wouldn’t put Paik in the statehouse. But it was a new building, a television station, and PBS affiliate. It was an exciting time. It was a continuation of a commitment to downtown Trenton for the state to build there.”
Moran says he was also proud to “bring a very innovative and dynamic artist” into the state collection. “A similar triumph was the George Segal (sculpture) at the Mary Roebling building. It took the program to a new height. It was his largest public art and involved an innovation made in Trenton — the I-beam. The Trenton Makes theme was also involved.”
Moran says he is also proud that the state organization that supported him and the arts projects for three decades has partnered with Artworks Trenton and allocated $160,000 to return PBS to the community. “The arts council deserves a lot of credit. They went out on a limb to do this. I was thrilled that they stuck to it. They could have said there was too much need in the arts community and put (the money) into arts funding. They made a commitment to the arts inclusion that is 40 years old. They saw it was an important work. It’s the only work of its kind. It’s a retrospective and it deals with the Sarnoff center.”
It is also now back in operation, Monday through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays, 7 a.m. to midnight, and Saturday and Sundays, 10 a.m. to midnight.
Nam June Paik, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Opening reception Saturday, September 14, 7 to 9 p.m. Panel discussion featuring Tom Moran and neon artist and sculpture restorer George Zienowicz, Sunday, October 10, 6 to 8 p.m. On view through October 19. Free. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.