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Joan Rothfuss discusses Nam June Paik's TV Brassiere for Living Sculpture (Charlotte Moorman) (1969)


Joan Rothfuss


September 1999

Institution Walker Art Center
This is Nam June Paik's TV Bra for Living Sculpture. It was made in 1969. Nam June Paik, I think, is a really fascinating artist. He is a Korean artist who came from a background in classical music and started working in Germany performing his music compositions and, eventually, got involved in more a avant-garde scene of performing under the influence of John Cage, who was working in Germany at the time and became one of, I think, the most original artists of the early mid century. So many things come together in his work. There's a sculptural aspect to it. There's music. There's a performance aspect to it. There's the mass media. He will often incorporate a television broadcast or other kinds of imagery from the mass media. It's always overlaid with humor and usually a heavy dose of sexuality. There's a lot of interesting sort of syntheses that he's working out. I don't think really that any artist has followed up on what he started in the early 1960s. He began, as I said, as a musician and composer and performer and in about 1963 started working with televisions and was one of the first artists to approach television as a possible artistic medium. He's usually called the father of video art. What he did with television in the early 1960s was to begin to manipulate the picture that was being broadcast by adding magnets to the top of the television set, which would then distort the picture. It's sort of the same thing that he was doing with pianos at the time. He was preparing pianos in the same way that Cage did, which means adding objects or altering the strings or the keys so that the sound would be changed for the performers. In other words, with TVs and with pianos, he was sort of taking control of the object that delivered the sound or the picture and manipulating the object in a sculptural way so that you got a different product than you were used to getting.

This piece was made after Paik left Germany and came to the United States where he met Charlotte Moorman, who was also classically trained as a cellist and had, in the mid 1960s, kind of dropped out of that whole scene. She was in a symphony orchestra, I think in Alabama, and decided to join forces with Paik. in 1964, they started working together and he created a lot of sculptures for her to work with and perform with. We also own one called TV Cello, which she actually played. But this one, she would wear while she was playing her cello. She had foot pedals that she could manipulate that would change the way the picture looked. Also, whatever she was playing on the cello would affect the picture because everything was wired up together. Usually what was coming over the televisions in the bra were broadcast images just from television broadcasts, whatever was on during the performance.

The piece is really funny, I think, in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's a bra so you've got this fetish with breasts in this culture. He's overlaying this with the television sets, which also were becoming a fetish. This is at the moment when Marshall McLuhan is talking about media and the influence of media on everyday culture; so, it's kind of a funny statement to have to allow us to stare at both at once -- the breasts and the television set -- while she's playing. One of the things he was trying to do was, as he said, inject a high measure of sexuality back into music in order to bring it back up to speed with visual arts and literature, which already had them dealing with sex for a long time. So, this was maybe tongue in cheek, but definitely had some influence over the construction of this bra for Charlotte.

Part of the title is Living Sculpture. Charlotte is conceived as the sculpture. Not only the TV bra but the performer herself is an art object and that was a crucial part of Fluxus. Paik was associated with Fluxus, sort of on the outskirts of it a lot of the time chiefly because of his interest in sexuality. Most of the Fluxus artists didn't approach that topic. It was sort of taboo for a lot of them, but Paik was interested in it. He was also interested in the aspect of combining art and everyday life, which could include the human body, the human being, the human activity of performing. That's an idea that was approached by [unclear], who also made a living sculpture out of himself by living in a window of a gallery for three weeks. A lot of other artists at the time . . . Gilbert and George did a living sculpture, a singing sculpture piece; so, here Charlotte is the sculpture as well as the television sets.

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Type: Commentary, curatorial commentary
Source: Joan Rothfuss, Associate Curator of Visual Arts, Walker Art Center, commenting on Nam June Paik's TV Brassiere for Living Sculpture (Charlotte Moorman) (1969), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.
Rights: Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009