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Nam June Paik's video tower returns after 3-year restoration

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The largest video tower ever created by video art visionary Nam June Paik,
The largest video tower ever created by video art visionary Nam June Paik, "The More, The Better" (1988), was officially relit, Sept. 15, at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea's Gwacheon branch in Gyeonggi Province, after a three-year restoration. Paik's masterpiece, composed of 1,003 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, had been switched off since 2018 due to the malfunctioning of its aging primary components. Courtesy of the MMCA

Special archive exhibition held to mark return of 'The More, The Better'

By Park Han-sol

Ahead of the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Korean government was in the process of constructing the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea's (MMCA) new branch in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province.

But after its completion in 1986, suspicions were raised that the museum's rotunda, called the Ramp Core, bore a striking resemblance to that of The Guggenheim in New York City.

To dispel such questions ― and to show evidence of the state-level support for the country's arts and culture ― the government needed a site-specific artwork, one that was so eye-catching that it could become a new visual symbol of the museum's identity.

And so began the birth story of video art visionary Nam June Paik's (1932-2006) largest-ever video installation, "The More, The Better," which was lit for the first time on Sept. 15, 1988.

For three decades, the 18.5-meter-tall tower emitted Paik's iconic phantasmagoric collages of electronic images through a whopping number of 1,003 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors.

That was until the museum was forced to switch it off in 2018 as a result of the malfunctioning of its aging, now-defunct primary components.

"According to our diagnosis carried out on all CRT monitors, we found multiple safety issues, including fire and explosion risks, due to the screens' deteriorating power supply system and insulation," Kwon In-cheol, the curator behind the tower's conservation and restoration project, said during a press conference held at the MMCA Gwacheon last week.

"Like automobiles, these analog monitors are manufactured by structurally welding different components together. And as many are well aware, there are no more factories left that produce those parts on a commercial scale," he continued.

The museum stood at a critical point at the start of 2019, according to its director, Youn Bum-mo. Should it strictly maintain the work's original form with the limited supply of secondhand CRT monitors available? Should it instead replace them with newer display technology at hand? Or was there no other choice left but to tear it down?

After an extensive consultation with specialists here and abroad, an announcement was made in September 2019 that the museum would launch a three-year restoration project of "The More, The Better," based on a realistic compromise and a budget of 3.7 billion won ($2.66 million).

From 2019 to 2021, secondhand panels and components sought from around the world were deployed to repair and replace 737 damaged CRTs. For the other 266 no-longer-functional monitors that constitute the tower's upper section, new LCD flat screens were installed while maintaining the same outward appearance as the vintage monitors.

Following its successful six-month test run early this year, the imposing video tower finally returned to the public eye on Sept. 15 ― the same date as its unveiling ceremony in 1988.

A shot of Nam June Paik's
A shot of Nam June Paik's "The More, The Better" being unveiled to the world for the first time as part of the artist's large-scale satellite project, "Wrap Around the World," which was broadcast live in 11 countries to commemorate the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics / Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix

But of course, the ultimate fate of "The More, The Better" remains to be seen.

Even with the museum's attempt to ensure that the installation is conserved as close to its original form as possible by conducting continuous technical maintenance, the outdated monitors could break down at any time. And the search for high-quality secondhand components for their repair and replacement is growing harder by the day.

"Its current state is comparable to that of (a slowly dying) patient on a ventilator," Kwon said.

To guarantee the stable operation of the tower, the MMCA has decided to restrict its viewing times to four days a week for two hours a day ― a schedule that is subject to changes in order to prioritize the work's condition. Inspections will be accompanied regularly throughout its run.

The national museum will also share the detailed processes and results of its three-year-long conservation and restoration project through a white paper slated for release in the first half of 2023.

"The More, The Better" under construction in 1988 / Courtesy of the MMCA Art Research Center Collection

The long-awaited return of Paik's largest work is being celebrated at the MMCA Gwacheon with a special archive exhibition, "Merry Mix: The More, The Better."

With its title inspired by a phrase the artist used to explain his oeuvre ― "a merry mix of the new and old generations of enfants terribles" ― the show features over 200 archival materials and interviews with Paik's creative and technical collaborators that bring to light the history of his monumental installation from design to operation.

One of Paik's handwritten letters to the museum prior to the tower's construction may catch viewers' eyes.

"Don't go about the business without clear planning," he wrote. "If the project begins to stretch itself too thin and requires an extra budget (on administrative affairs), that means less money can be spent on the actual software, bringing down its artistic quality … I don't want to waste my time doing things only to fill others' bellies."

The exhibition also presents photographer Lee Eun-joo's candid portraits of Paik that offer a peek into the artist in his later life from the 1990s and early 2000s through the eye of an old friend.

"Merry Mix: The More, The Better" runs through Feb. 26 next year.

Photographer Lee Eun-joo's
Photographer Lee Eun-joo's "Nam June Paik Drawing in His Studio" (2000) / Courtesy of the artist
Park Han-sol

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