On a performance by Paik Nam June (with Joseph Beuys) at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul (text: 1995)

Jin Young Sun, Lee Yong Woo, R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 9 September 2011
This text was previously presented by R. J. Preece as an introduction to Lee Yong Woo’s presentation "Gesture and Social Communication" at the XXIX International Art Critics Association Congress in Macau in September 1995.

As you may know, Joseph Beuys and Paik Nam June had a long friendship. In fact, they were planning to perform together at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. For this performance, they planned to merge their two souls and, by doing so, the two regions of their Shamanist experiences. For Paik, this meant Korea; while for Beuys, this meant the Ural-Altaic region between Europe and Asia.

During World War II, Joseph Beuys was a pilot, and his plane was shot down in this region. [...] The local people, the Tatar, took him and performed a Shamanist ritual. They brought him back to life, and through this, Beuys experienced a spiritual awakening. In fact, he referred to this experience as the beginning of his second life.

However, the 1988 Seoul Olympics performance could not go ahead as planned. Joseph Beuys died two years before the Olympics. Yet, it was Paik Nam June’s wish to continue with the performance [in 1990], be it in a slightly different way. His concept was to bring the spirit of Joseph Beuys back through Shamanism with the assistance of a Korean Shamanist, who happens to have the national status of a "Living Treasure" in Korea. In this way, they could go ahead with the performance as planned.

In this performance, Paik Nam June uses twelve symbolic elements: a piano, a name plate, two hats, fire, rice, earth, candles, a folding screen, creme, a branch, a ritual costume, and televisions.

The piano is a symbol of Joseph Beuys, because when Paik first met Beuys in Germany in 1963, Bueys gave a performance in which he destroyed a piano with an axe.

The second element is a name plate for Joseph Beuys. In the performance, Paik Nam June nails the name plate on the piano to identify a place for Beuys to position himself.

Third, two hats are used: one for Beuys and one for Paik.

The fourth element, fire, is used for two purposes: first, to merge the souls of Beuys and Paik; second, to prepare a path to a peaceful life for Beuys after the ceremony.

Fifth, rice is used and is a central element of every Shamanist ritual. You should know, in the East, rice is the main food, like meat, chicken, or fish is in the West.

Sixth, earth is important because it is a symbol of a physical transformation of the dead.

The seventh element, candles, are used as a tool for calling souls.

Eighth, Paik Nam June uses a folding screen with images of Joseph Beuys making the cry of a coyote, a symbolic animal of Siberia. On the screen, Beuys’ name is not written in English, but in Chinese characters.

Ninth, creme is used as a symbol of Crimea. The Korean language and the language of the Ural-Altaic mountains came from Crimea, and creme is used as a linguistic metaphor.

Tenth, a branch is used to facilitate a meeting between Joseph Beuys and Paik Nam June.

The eleventh element, a ritual costume, is used by Paik to indicate a form for Beuys to occupy.

Finally, the twelfth element, televisions, a symbol of Paik’s work, watch in the background and participate in the performance.

And now, you will see the merging of the souls of Paik Nam June and Joseph Beuys...