How MoMA restored Nam June Paik's TV piano

Cathode-ray and player-piano piece is either 'a conservation dream or nightmare' says MoMA expert
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Untitled (piano) (1993) by Nam June Paik
Untitled (piano) (1993) by Nam June Paik

New York's Museum of Modern Art describe the 'medium' used for Nam June Paik's work Untitled (piano), (1993), like this: 'Player piano, fifteen televisions, two cameras, two laser disc players, one electric light and light bulb, and wires.' Hardly your traditional oils on canvas, then. Produced 20 years ago, the piece emits tinkling sentimental piano music, while footage of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, interspersed with other images, flit across the cathode ray screens.

As a work of art, it seems to neatly encapsulate the entertainment of the 20th century.  Yet how do you continue to present such a work, when a functioning laser disc player is now about as rare as an Agnes Martin painting? As MoMA's Glenn Wharton explains, the undertaking was either 'a conservation dream or a conservation nightmare' depending on one's point of view. Wharton is MoMA's Time-Based Media Conservator, and has spent the past two years restoring and conserving the work prior to its installation this month.


Wharton says that Nam June Paik, who died in 2006, was quite relaxed about some alternations being made to his works – such as the transfer of video files from tape to digital formats – while remaining quite immoveable on other elements. Paik forbade the substitution of cathode-ray screens for the newer, more widely available, flat screens, for example.

 

The conservator approached the recherché New York electronics store, CTL Electronics, whom Paik used to work with, in order to source these older screen components. The piano too, required careful attention, and was seen to by a local firm. Meanwhile, Wharton took it upon himself to update the piano's floppy-discs with a modern computer drive.

Wharton, in his thoughtful account, admits that he and his colleagues won't be able to install the piece as Nam June Paik would have, and yet they must attempt to follow in his spirit. Watch the full video interview above; read the blog posts here, and for further insight into Nam June Paik's work and place within the art world, please consider our book, Defining Contemporary Art, which covers 25 Years of artist practice in 200 pivotal artworks.


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