A Moving Archive

True to the work of the pioneering Korean artist, the Nam June Paik Library turns research into a performance.

Nahyun Hwang and David Eugin Moon

Nam June Paik Library
85 Sanggal-dong,
(82) 31-201-8500

Yongin, Gyeonggi-do,
South Korea

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The Nam June Paik Library, designed by Nahyun Hwang and David Eugin Moon of the Brooklyn-based architecture firm NHDM, is a 1,423-square-foot new-media installation for researching and displaying the radically inventive work of the Korean-born artist, Fluxus member, and prophet of the information age. The project opened this spring inside the Nam June Paik Art Center, in Yongin, South Korea, southeast of Seoul.

Paik was famous for creating sculptural assemblages of television sets, converting the commercial medium into a tool of colorfully distorted abstractions. The conceptual roots of his work are less well known. In the early 1960s, he joined a vanguard of composers in introducing wild theatricality into musical performances: knocking over pianos on stage and having his cellist perform bare-breasted, which caused both of them to be arrested and set a precedent for the emergence of performance art. The first fine artist to use a video camera in his work, Paik is credited as the inventor of video art. “He’s like the Picasso of Korea,” says the archivist Sang Ae Park.

In a prophetic 1974 proposal, Paik coined the term “electronic superhighway,” calling for a new media infrastructure that would liberate human creativity in the postindustrial age. Now that his prophecy is being realized, it raises the problem of creating meaningful social spaces for the exchange of information. “If everything is digital and interactive, without physicality to it, then you might as well just browse books online,” says Hwang, a former senior associate at James Corner Field Operations. “The library functions as a collective commons for the community.”

Begun in 2010, two years after the opening of the Art Center, the library references concepts of random access and nonlinearity that Paik used to disrupt audiences’ passivity. Videos and other media accessed by visitors are projected onto screens and monitors inside the space and on its exterior, turning researchers into producers of content. “You create these new combinations of information that would not have happened otherwise,” says Moon, formerly a designer at OMA.

The polycarbonate shelving units are attached by clips to galvanized-steel shelves and tubes. The library’s 3,000 books, 1,000 pieces of media, and 500 periodicals are visible through the shelves’ translucent surfaces. Hyperextending CD and DVD drawers emphasize the action of research, as do the rolling lab stations. Production areas automatically screen new works-in-progress, suggesting fresh iterations of Paik’s work.

“TV was a monofunctional device, and how Nam June Paik was trying to find new potential for it inspired me as an architect,” Hwang says. “He was trying to make the TV into a tool for two-way communication, for electronic democracy. These are concepts he brought up thirty to forty years ago that people are trying to do now.”

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