The Sistine Chapel’s system upgrade: Nam June Paik’s immersive video to be recreated for Tate

The Sistine Chapel is coming to London this month. And while it may not be the Renaissance original, the effort exerted to resurrect Nam June Paiks 1990s technological twist on Michelangelos masterpiece makes this feat no less impressive. The late Korean-Americans “video chapel” is being reconstructed for the first time in nearly three decades for a major touring retrospective on “the father of video art”. The exhibition is due to open at Tate Modern on 17 October before travelling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which co-organised the show with the Tate, and then to the Netherlands and Singapore.

Last shown in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, Sistine Chapel (1993) is a large-scale installation comprised of 40 video projectors beaming overlapping images of graphics and noted personalities, including the artist Joseph Beuys and the rock star Janis Joplin, in rapid-fire succession. Hans Haacke dominated the pavilions central space with a celebrated installation that smashed the marble floor installed under the Nazi regime, while Paik commandeered the buildings wings and grounds. Sistine Chapel filled one of these side areas. The pair won the Golden Lion for the joint presentation, though Haackes smashed pavilion floor attracted most of the headlines.

The original Sistine Chapel featured 40 video projectors Roman Mensing/artdoc.de

Another of Paiks video pieces from the 1993 Venice Biennale is due to be auctioned at Christies Unicredit sale on 5 October (Anonymous Crimean Tatar who Saved Life of Joseph Beuys—Not yet Thanked by German Folks (1993); est £160,000-£240,000), while Gallery Hyundai is showing works by the artist at Frieze London and Frieze Masters.

Until now, Sistine Chapel has existed in the artists estate as four videos and two modified video switches, says the associate curator Valentina Ravaglia, who worked on the show with the co-curators, Sook-Kyung Lee of the Tate and Rudolf Frieling of SFMoMA. Frieling says it takes the might of a major retrospective to be able to pull off a project like this. “It takes a village; its not something you can just deliver and place.”

Paik, who died in 2006, did not leave instructions on how to reconstruct it, probably, Ravaglia says, because he never expected it to be restaged: “I dont think he thought of it as a portable work.” Indeed, installing the piece in Venice was so taxing on Paiks team, who had to haul 40 heavy projectors up onto scaffolding erected several metres above the floor, that the artist paid for each crew member to have an extra egg for breakfast each morning.

Only a few grainy photographs of the original installation exist, including one in Frielings personal archive; before he swapped his journalist hat for a curators cap, he interviewed Paik at the Biennale for a German television station.

In the absence of Paik and extensive documentation, the curators turned to John Huffman, the curator of the artists estate and one of Paiks long-time studio assistants. He provided a map of the projected images, complete with the desired sizing and overlap, and then curators and conservators worked with the specialist contractors ADI to determine where each video projector needed to sit.

Self-Portrait (2005) incorporates a 10” LCD colour monitor © Estate of Nam June Paik Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

Convenience counts

Like Paiks early TV works, many of the projectors he used for the original installation featured cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which manufacturers no longer produce and so are becoming difficult to source. But Ravaglia says Paiks decision was mainly motivated by convenience. “It really didnt matter to him that they were CRT projectors; he just needed ones he could buy in bulk,” she says. Video projectors, especially the old behemoths Paik used, produce a lot of heat so one can only imagine the temperature in the German Pavilion during the height of summer. But the Tate curators decided against whittling down the number of projectors to just ten, choosing instead to use slightly smaller and lighter ones.

One of the main challenges faced by time-based media is the obsolescence of technology. “Its an ongoing whack-a-mole problem,” says the media conservator Dan Finn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, DC, which houses the Nam June Paik Archive. For this reason it is vital that museums “document the artists intent, and become comfortable with a notion of the work as not just one thing, but as a concept and experience that might manifest differently over time,” says SAAMs time-based media curator Saisha Grayson.

Dying technology

With Paik, it is his frequent use of CRT TVs and monitors that causes the most difficulty. “No one makes glass [cathode] tubes anymore. Its a dying technology and so its a big source of anxiety within the field,” Finn says. When CRT monitors were new, technicians had developed a way to repair broken tubes, but this knowhow was lost. The good news is that experts are working to revive this skill.

Early on, the Tate called recycling centres around London, asking for old CRT TVs because the institutions stockpile of equipment was not big enough to support such a large exhibition of video works. Ravaglia admits it is not an ideal way to collect material: “Wed go collect them to find that they looked like a bird bath with pools of water iRead More – Source