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Exploring the 'Electronic Superhighway'

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Thousands of people turned out over the weekend for the grand opening of two of America's great art museums. The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum share a space in the Smithsonian Institution's old Patent Office in Washington, D.C. For the last six years the building had been closed for renovations.

LYNN NEARY, host:

In the American Art Museum, there is a new twist on an old standard. The U.S. map has been transformed into a giant neon video installation, like an arty interpretation of a roadside attraction sign. A network of vibrant lights outline the boundaries of the country, TV screens flash with the sights and sounds of the 50 states. The map is the work of Korean-born artist Nam June Paik. He called it Electronic Superhighway.

Betsy Brun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says the video images reflect Paik's own ideas about each state.

Ms. BETSY BRUN (Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum): Really, it's kind of an index to what Nam June Paik knew about each state. For instance, if you look up in Idaho, we sort of think may be he didn't know a whole lot about Idaho. It's just a camera panning across a giant pile of potatoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRUN: And if you look at the Midwestern states, we get the feeling that most of what he knew about Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, came from the movies, because you're showing the Wizard of Oz, Oklahoma and Meet Me in St. Louis. But almost all the others, he's made his own video.

NEARY: We're very close to California...

Ms. BRUN: That's right.

NEARY: ...which is outlined in red, yellow and green.

Ms. BRUN: Yes.

NEARY: And what I noticed, as I was looking at California, is that the images are moving really fast.

Ms. BRUN: Yes, they are.

NEARY: You can't really look at those images very easily.

Ms. BRUN: California is very hallucinogenic. And you see a lot of zeros and ones. He's obviously very aware of the digital revolution. You see a lot of the Golden Gate Bridge, that kind of flashes by pretty quickly. You have a lot of an exercise class. If you look closely, you can see that the exercise class is being led by O.J. Simpson.

NEARY: And in Texas, my eyes are now being drawn to the Branch Davidian complex...

Ms. BRUN: Yes, indeed.

NEARY: ...on fire, but it's in...

Ms. BRUN: And you have cowgirls. You have cactus. But I believe there is a little bit of the burning of the Branch Davidians going in Texas as well. It's kind of a collage of a great many things in Texas. If you look in Iowa, you have a kind of computer-generated montage of lots and lots of candidates flicking by. So it's primary country.

NEARY: I'm seeing now...

Ms. BRUN: There they are.

NEARY: ...I'm seeing Jimmy Carter...

Ms. BRUN: That's right.

NEARY: ...flashing by. And Richard Nixon is flashing by.

Ms. BRUN: And they're flickering by pretty quickly. You can see that it's - we've got JFK and all kinds of early candidates, Eisenhower, Truman. So they're all in there.

NEARY: I noticed that Texas is kind of tucked under.

Ms. BRUN: Yes, it is.

NEARY: Why is that?

Ms. BRUN: Texas and Florida are both kind of tucked under because his studio was only about 20 feet tall. And he wanted this map to be as big as possible. So those little parts of Texas and Florida that stick down, well, he just folded the neon under. That way, he had a little more room at the top. We asked him when we brought it here, we said, would you like us to unfold Texas and Florida? He said no. Just leave it.

NEARY: How did this fit into American art? This museum is a tribute to American art.

Ms. BRUN: Yes.

NEARY: Where do you place this within that?

Ms. BRUN: Well, I'll tell you, one of the things I love most about this piece is that it really does have some reflection of everybody's experience all across the country. It's more emotional. It's very affecting. In some ways, we worry that contemporary art has gotten to be a conversation among a very small subset of Americans, but not this work. This work really is here for everybody. And I think people deeply love it.

NEARY: Betsy Brun is the director of the newly reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.