DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, September 7, 2012

2 Visionaries: John Cage & Nam June Paik

When most people think about Woodstock, they think about the 1969 music festival where upward to 500,000 hippies proved to the world "that half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music." But when avant garde music fans think of Woodstock, they primarily see it as the site where revered composer John Cage debuted his  masterpiece "4:33" 17 years earlier. And both those versions of the Woodstock story contribute heavily to famed video artist's Nam June Paik's 1973 PBS documentary of his friend Cage, a trippy tribute which received its Washington D.C. premier this week at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The showing of the one-hour film, appropriately entitled A Tribute to John Cage, is just one in a series of events being held in D.C. to commemorate what would have been Cage's 100th birthday. The event also served as a preview of the museum's extensive exhibition on Paik, which is scheduled to open this December.

Both Cage and Paik were artistic visionaries, creating works that still push the boundaries of music and art today. To place the documentary in perspective, John Hanhardt, senior curator of the musuem for video arts, talked at length about the friendship of Cage and Paik, their respective places in the art world, and Paik's moving image essay about his friend's life and work.

The two first met in Germany in 1958 and formed a bond, which given the nature of their creative philosophies and endeavors, wasn't surprising. Both created challenging music and art, often as much (or, in many cases, more) about performance than composition.

"There was always something about Nam June's performing that was totally unpredictable," Handardt said. "During one of Paik's musical performance, he jumped from the stage, went into the audience and began cutting John Cage's shirt and tie, then smothered him in shampoo. He was making his own performance a playful hommage to the master John Cage"

Handhardt said both artists were intent on "opening our ears to listening and opening our eyes to watching."

Both explored the role of chance and randomness in art. For example, Cage would often use the Chinese I Ching to determine the best places to schedule performances which sometimes turned out to be busy street corners or vacant, trash-filled lots.

In addition, Paik and Cage created the technology to allow them to display their art. "And they were both looking for a way to humanize technology and to get to a democratization of performance," Handhardt said.

Finally, both were well aware of the power of silence in an increasingly cacophonous contemporary  world. "What we require is silence and what silence requires is that I go on talking," Cage says in Paik's film.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, words do little justice to the magic of Cage's music or Paik's video genius. So here are some links where you can witness that power for yourself.

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