Analysis of Nam June Paik's "Modulation in Sync: Jacob's Ladder"

General / 27 October 2018

Postmodernism has evolved through an elaborate web of diversity and of the two main viewpoints, Deconstructive and Reconstructive Postmodernism, my personal perspective identifies more with that of Reconstructive Postmodernism.  I have regard for both variations of Postmodernism with their intent of being revolutionary and creating a separation from it predecessors and the past.  But in doing so, they also manifest a level of reliance on these past art movements, including Minimalism, Dadaism, and other Modernist directions. Charles Jencks references the term Postmodernism and notes that its application in art along with other fields like architecture and science "was understood as 'subversion from within' the establishment, using the reigning voice to send a message."[1]  To me, the prominent difference is in how each of the two Postmodernism directions respond to this past and the potential future by way of their present actions.  There is a sense of inspiration and hope in the realization of progress when it does so in a positive, constructive manner, and I experience this more with Reconstructive Postmodernism.  This is best exemplified through an analysis of artist Nam June Paik's alliance with the Fluxus art movement, pioneering of video art, and artwork Modulation in Sync: Jacob's Ladder.  

Link to image of referenced artwork:

Nam June Paik's studies and interests spanned a wide range of disciplines and topics, including art, music, performance, and emerging technology.  A multidisciplinary approach to art happens to be a defining principle within my own pursuits, which I truly appreciate.  His background, along with a strong understanding of Modernism and involvement in the Fluxus movement, paved his revolutionary path into the realm of video and interactive art with a goal "to both humanize technology and remake it through a spirit of play and freewheeling invention."[2]  Jacob's Ladder illuminates the atrium of the Guggenheim by redefining the elemental building block of light into a sculptural performance that tempts one to climb.  There is a simplicity in the organization of the installation that hints at Minimalism, yet it challenges it by pushing forward technology's potential value to envision a reminiscent icon, the ecclesiastical Jacob's ladder.  Furthermore, "Paik’s Fluxus vision inclined itself to crossing borders and dissolving difference through the power of televisual flow."[3]  The references and links within Jacob's Ladder traverse cultural differences and embrace the transformational future of technology.  Collectively, this stands out to me as a progressive attitude of extracting multifaceted contexts that simultaneously dispelled conformity to Modernism or its emergent elitism.

Many have titled Paik as "'The Father of Video Art' and 'The George Washington of Video Art' in recognition of the range and quality of his art making and the fact that his support for video art at large created opportunities for other artists."[4]  However, his approach to using technology was not that he used video art as a vehicle to simply showcase the superficiality of emerging technology.  Instead, it provided him the opportunity to unveil the transformation of an object into something more than itself or even a symbol.  Art historian David Joselit clarifies that Paik redefined the categorization of an object by acknowledging its form as an "object", "action" and "network," all three of which would become "manifested as the disruption of the receiver's normal operation."[5]  So in addition to being a symbol, the object takes on meaning as a living entity within diverse context, and is further elevated to become part of an interconnected system beyond its physical constraints.  This dissection of Modernism is inherent to Postmodernism, but the transformative and organic nature of enlightenment is specific to the Reconstructive viewpoint.

Ultimately, my bias adheres to Paik's ability to tame technology by exploring its substructure of forms, or phases, in a constructive manner.   Looking back, progress exhibits a cyclical pattern with each movement emerging as a form of criticizing or reforming previous movements, yet Charles Jencks articulates that "the modern poet has to adopt a double stance, honouring the exemplars while modifying their message."[6]  Postmodernism as a whole looks to subvert many of the driving forces behind Modernism, but it still echoes it in order to even exist. My alignment with Reconstructive Postmodernism is built on its pursuit of radical reformation through meaning and allowing organic transformation to lead the way.


[1] Charles Jencks, "What is Radical Post-Modernism?" Architectural Design (Special Issue: Radical Post-Modernism) 81, no. 5 (September/October 2011): 17.

[2] John G. Hanhardt, "Nam June Paik (1932–2006): Video Art Pioneer," American Art 20, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 150-151.

[3] Jun Okada, "Nam June Paik and Laurel Nakadate at the Margins of Asian American Film and Video," Cinema Journal 56, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 137 & 139.

[4] Hanhardt, "Nam June Paik," 148.

[5] David Joselit, "No Exit: Video and the Readymade," October 119 (Winter 2007): 38 & 43.

[6] Charles Jencks, "Why Critical Modernism?" Architectural Design (Special Issue: Rationalist Traces) 77, no. 5 (September/October 2007): 145.