Exhibition reviews: Nam June Paik | Leonardo Da Vinci

Still images from Nam June Paik's various videos. Picture: Contributed
Still images from Nam June Paik's various videos. Picture: Contributed
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They lived in different times and cultures, but for both Leonardo Da Vinci and Nam June Paik, art and science were indivisible


Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

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The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh

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All over Edinburgh

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Jupiter Artland, Wilkieston, near Edinburgh

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In 1982, the New York curator John Handhardt helped the artist Nam June Paik to send a robot across Madison Avenue where, in a staged accident, a car ran into it.

A TV reporter asked Paik what had just happened. Never one for an understatement Paik replied, that it represented “the catastrophe of technology in the 21st century”.

At the Talbot Rice Gallery, Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds is an unmissable, if at times exhausting major show under the auspices of the Edinburgh International Festival, in which one is constantly torn between understanding Paik’s car crash aesthetic as comedy or tragedy.

Between banks of TV screens, the endless chatter of Japanese Pepsi adverts and twee archaic robots crafted out of old electronics and named Beethoven and Schubert, one bounces between the liberating possibilities of audiovisual technology and its intrusive, demagogic presence.

Paik’s attitude was playful, but also aggressive. Born in 1932 in Korea, he studied in Tokyo. A trained classical musician, he learned to dismantle and rebuild convention in a European milieu that included figures like Karlheinz Stockhausen. As a New York artist he was associated with the Fluxus movement and with avant-garde iconoclasts like the composer John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

He played TV like an instrument, messing with its insides so that the images on screen warped and wavered, stuttered and burped. He constructed cellos that were screens and screens that could be played and a violin that swam.

With Charlotte Moorman, a Juilliard trained musician who jumped ship to the avant-garde, he messed with all the decorum of classical music conventions. Their 1967 performance, Opera Sextronique looks dreadfully dated in the film you can watch in the gallery’s video lounge, but it was sensational enough to be stopped by police. The topless Moorman was arrested for obscenity.

With the pioneering Japanese engineer Shuya Abe, he created the Paik-Abe Synthesizer to try and do with visuals what sound pioneers were doing with music. In Talbot Rice’s Georgian gallery, Paik’s gorgeous Video Chandelier is both a flickering visual wonder and a metaphor for the wired, interlinked, endlessly looping culture of global technology.

All of this, fascinatingly, is also ancient history. The exhibition marks a half-century since the artist’s landmark exhibition in Wuppertal, Germany in 1963 and some of Paik’s original works for the show are presented, documented or remade.

It’s in these moments that the flat screen generation might get a stronger idea of what a cumbersome and brutal beast TV once was. Paik’s original installation included his famous Zen for TV, an upturned telly showing nothing but a straight line. But it also fed the face of the fervent and paternalistic figure of Richard Nixon into the gallery. By attaching copper coils to the screen Paik both emphasized Nixon’s scowl and disrupted and fragmented his unified image.

Paik understood TV as both future wallpaper and potential Big Brother: he fought to find the frequencies where art and artists would be heard. Above all he refused to be passive in front of the screen. Some of his ideas and aesthetics seem remote now, and the slightly chilly curation means that we can’t quite touch the work’s once radical newness or the messiness revealed in archive photographs. But Paik’s experimental approach to technology lives on in the arts. Anyone who saw the amazing work by Ryan Trecartin at this year’s Venice Biennale, who has seen the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at Edinburgh this summer or who follows the art of Haroon Mirza, who is showing at Collective’s off-site exhibition at Meadowbank, will have encountered Paik’s maverick spirit.

The tangled wires of Nam June Paik lead to another artist engineer at the International Festival, probably the greatest that ever lived. Under the human skin, he found a tangle of veins and arteries, a skein of muscle.

However, the atmosphere at the Queen’s Gallery is emphatically one of tragedy. Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man shows some 30 sheets of his anatomical drawings, some of them matched up with the latest in anatomical imaging. Leonardo da Vinci’s works on anatomy were stymied and abandoned in his lifetime and languished in his papers after his death in 1519.

They were seen by other artists soon after his death but later lay buried in the Arundel and Royal Collections until mighty figures like the Scottish anatomist William Hunter began to recognise their value.

It was the 20th century before their innovation was appreciated and their astonishing accuracy was truly known. Now we know that his work, particularly on the heart, might have changed the course of anatomy – it took a further two centuries to discover some of the things Leonardo knew.

I expected to be fascinated by this show and I was. Leonardo’s detailed depiction of the spine was the first accurate such image in history. His ambitious study of the hand would have meant completing over 100 drawings, with each individual bone pictured four times. But I didn’t expect to be so moved. Five centuries on, the tender depiction of the human foot, the bend of a knee, collapses the difference between then and now. The human body seems so close when you see it unclothed, unsheathed.

But for all the familiarity, it is important to recognise that Leonardo lived and thought in a different world. Indeed, that’s what made his observations so remarkable and so challenging to his own understanding. The show begins with his images of human coitus, part of an over-reaching ambition to produce a defining anatomical treatise on the human life cycle. The image shows in apparently rigorous detail things that we know simply aren’t there: a vessel running from spinal cord to penis, for example, the mechanics believed necessary in ideas of the transmission of “animal spirit”.

Technical innovation is everywhere. Much of what we now recognise as the absolute conventions of anatomical representation were created by Leonardo: the layers of information, bone and muscle, drew on his engineering skills; the frontal views, plans and elevations he adapted from architecture; the exploded view presented the impossible but explained the actual.

Leonardo’s techniques were extraordinarily thorough. He injected an aortic valve with molten wax and made a glass model of the vessel which he then flushed with water and grass seed. The swirling eddies he observed we now know are important to the closure of the valve after each heartbeat and can only now be seen with the latest technology. But Leonardo’s discoveries could not match his worldview, or the state of knowledge of his age, and he abandoned his work.

It is both salutary and moving to understand the grim circumstances in which much of the research was carried out. In the winter of 1510-11 he carried out as many as 20 dissections. Martin Clayton, the curator of the exhibition told me that none of these surviving drawings are dissection room sketches, though Leonardo may have made them. They would, he said, be too badly stained by blood and body fluids and would have been discarded.

The clean drawings are made from memory. Reconstructed from sketches and from a lifetime’s looking, they combine the observed and the hypothesised, the nude study and the flayed corpse. These are life and death studies.

Ross Sinclair’s Edinburgh Art Festival commission Real Life and How to Live it in Auld Reekie has been an embarrassment of riches, a sprawling, ever-expanding project that encompasses three billboards, 500 posters, 12,000 postcards, 20,000 beermats and a limited edition red vinyl single. Thanks to the latter, Sinclair’s self-penned and insanely catchy theme tune for the project is now wedged in my consciousness.

All of this apes the way that modern saturation marketing colonises everything up to and including the inside of your head. But the idea that Sinclair is selling, I guess, is a debate about your own identity, all the stuff about the difference between marketing and real life and the possibility that art might actually bring us closer to each other or ourselves.

Sinclair’s posters are his signature instructional lists: “Gather together, levitate culture, celebrate sculpture, venerate thinking”. They poke fun at fictional Scotland: his top ten of fictional Scots includes Shrek and Princess Merida as well as Groundskeeper Willie.

But they also seek to represent a more rounded picture of the capital. They include a top ten of Edinburgh schemes from Wester Hailes to Niddrie and the price that Burke and Hare obtained per cadaver. Effie the cinderwoman fetched them a tenner. It’s a horrible list, but not as shocking as the list of Lothian’s annual toll of drugs deaths.

The project brings a brisk, fresh breeze to the sometimes stifling atmosphere of the city at festival time.

I spent a delightful afternoon on the plywood expanses of Krijn de Koning’s installation at Edinburgh College of Art for Real Life Parledonia, Sinclair’s afternoon of art and music. Author Ewan Morrison read a gothic tale of a future utopia. Artist Maria Fusco told the story of a little tremor who created earthquakes and dreamed of icebergs, and musician Raymond MacDonald accompanied Sinclair’s performances as well as guiding us all in improvisational singing.

At Jupiter Artland, the sculpture park where art works must sit next to each other as they nestle in a landscape, the Glasgow artist Sara Barker, in her first ever outdoor work, sidesteps the pressures in a brittle, beautiful abstract sculpture of glass, bronze and painted steel that seems to disappear and reappear as you walk around it. At first you think it yields too much to all the nature that surrounds it, but then you sense its quiet strength.

Nam June Paik until 19 October; Leonardo Da Vinci until 10 November; Ross Sinclair until 1 September; Sara Barker until 15 September