Video-fish (Poissons-vidéo), 1979 - 1992

7 to 15 monitors, 7 to 15 aquariums with fish,
2 videos, NTSC, colour, silent, 30’.
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris (France)

The early days of a newborn art form are rife with experimentation. Artists seek out the unique qualities of the medium. Motion picture artists were initially intrigued by the realism of movies. They reputedly galloped horses out of the screen in order to panic the audience. The art form that slowly developed out of film experiments – silent movies – came to a precipitous end when talkies appeared. Pioneers of video were initially drawn to the medium by the live image. Video provided artists with a means to explore time. Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham used a live video camera and time delay to produce works that had viewers run into their earlier actions. Never before had the past and the present met in such a direct confrontation. Video revitalized the age-old question about the reality of dreams and fantasy, i.e., what is real and what is virtual? Eventually artists decided that the video image is as real as anything else we see, touch and smell. Paik initially settled into New York in a studio on Canal Street. The spot was ideal for an artist fascinated by the detritus of modern living. During the day, the shops along Canal emptied second-hand electronic and machinery wares onto the sidewalks. Paik's path to the corner deli for coffee and juice meandered through the paraphernalia of his palette. The helter-skelter piles of rusted motors and TV carcasses are the palimpsest of the fluxus energy in Paik's installations. The corner deli was the only outpost of civilization in the downtown artist neighborhood of the 1960s. It was not a place to linger, but Paik often ran into the locals, musician Steve Reich, film-maker Michael Snow and poet Allen Ginsberg. Naturally they entered each other's works. Paik shows up in Michael Snow's classic structuralist film, Wavelength, right at the end of the film's 45-minute zoom; a sharp eye can pick out a highly “colorized” Allen Ginsberg chanting away in Paik's video, Global Groove. Paik, prowling the streets for Portapak action, often dropped by Merce Cunningham's studio. It was the spot where many art forms intersected. Paik might meet Warhol and Rauschenberg dropping off sets for a new Cunningham dance piece, and he could sit in with composers Cage and David Tudor editing birdcalls and cricket chirps into a random electronic score. Blue Studio, Cunningham's first choreographed video work, featured several iterations of himself performing together against a blue background. The blue dance fit in with Paik's fixation on the limited mobility of fish in a tank. Paik was scheming to launch fish into the blue sky. Fish on the Sky – Fish hardly flies anymore on the Sky – Let Fishes fl y again showed in 1975 at the Martha Jackson Gallery warehouse near the Hudson River. Viewers lay on blue exercise mats spread on a disco-sized gallery floor, and looked up at undersea life on monitors floating above. The fish is a Paik logo for video. Sketches of his planned installations typically have a fish drawn within outlines of monitors. And at times he turned his loft into a virtual aquarium. Visiting friends had to navigate a sea of monitors devoted to marine life. Swimming in monitors suspended from the ceiling, the fish look like aliens that landed in the ocean eons ago, and new species are still arriving from outer space. Science has slotted the biological class pisces into a tidy evolutionary model, but an understanding of the world of fishes remains beyond human ken. The video that Paik made for the fish of Video Fish was obviously a labor of love for someone into fish. Their bulging eyes indicate fish are attentive viewers who might appreciate good video. Paik thought Merce Cunningham's dance on blue would appeal to underwater denizens and consequently he choreographed a video work of several Cunninghams and fishes dancing. Video Fish consists of a row of fish tanks with a monitor pressed against a glass wall of each tank. The Cunningham-fish video seen through the murky water of the fish tanks is blurred, but the live fish in the tanks may have a good view. They appear interested in the video. Occasionally a fish swims over to check out a viewer peering at the ballet. The face-off of viewer and viewee, human and fish, is echoed in the background video of virtual Cunninghams and fish dancing. Om, we are all one, and fish are included. If fish are aliens, Paik's thoughtful attention should make them feel at home. Video Fish reflects the yin aspect of Paik's art. Fluid and sensual, the work lulls the viewer into a contemplative frame of mind. Many other Paik projects are dominated by a hard-hitting yang pace. His range is broad, as befits an artist who seeks to reach across cultures to fashion a universal art.


Barbara London