Rich portrait of pioneering Korean video artist Nam June Paik
Dir: Amanda Kim. US. 2023. 108mins
Amanda Kim’s feature doc debut is as sprightly as the man whose life she follows – Nam June Paik, the Korean-born but mostly US-based avant garde-ist who would become known as the ‘father of video art’. Eventually. For most of his life, though, this most modern of modern artists lived like a pauper despite coming from one of the richest families in post-War Korea. Given the convention-defying ways of Paik and his friends – John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Allen Ginsberg, Charlotte Moorman et al — Moon Is The Oldest TV feels oddly nostalgic for a better time for the rule breakers of society. There’s an innocence here, and an enigmatic genius at play, which should see the film into wide festival play following its debut at Sundance.
Amanda Kim makes excellent use of what footage she has uncovered to frame Paik’s life and recover a time whose effects still reverberate today
The title comes from one of Paik’s shows, and is explained in a charming post-credit sequence with Marina Abramovic. She’s just one of many commentators — and easily the youngest – happy to contextualise Park’s work and marvel all over again at the foresight of the man who invented the term ‘electronic superhighway’. Here he’s presented as a quixotic sort, proud of his multi-lingualism in all its shortcomings, and a repressed elder scion of a chaebol who joined the communist party in Korea and fled to Germany in 1956, initially to study music.
It’s reassuring to note, as you watch clips of Paik at the vanguard of the avant garde pushing over pianos and planting his face in buckets of paint in flickering black-and -white home video, that he knew his stuff: he was an accomplished classical pianist whose thesis, tellingly, was on Schoenberg. It took a ‘concert’ by John Cage to fully unleash the creative spirit in Paik that led to him to join the Fluxus movement, tie violins to himself and drag them along the streets, and ‘invent’ topless cello playing in which the classical musician Charlotte Moorman had propellors – and eventually televisions – taped to her breasts.
That’s skipping a few steps, though (including inventing a robot who walked around Manhattan blaring out John Kennedy’s ‘Ask Not’ speech while ‘shitting little white beans’, as Moorman recalls). “My work looks whimsical, but it has a profound background,” explained Paik.
It was the arrival of the TV set, however, which set this artist free. He understood it completely, and artistically, like no other. ‘My really late non-success’ gave Paik the freedom to switch medium and to use the framed moving screen to play out all his lifelong preoccupations, becoming the world’s first video artist, the discipline’s ‘Picasso’. By that point, though, Paik had been living hand to mouth for decades, and it would take a toll on his health.
There’s a great deal of charm and humour to Paik’s work, and to this film, but it’s anchored by his perceptiveness and ability to contemplate weighty themes – and, yes, to anticipate the future. The arrival of home video, cheap TV sets and eventually colour projection sees the black and white beatnick-y archive footage give-way to kaleidoscopic effects and trippy negative reversals, towers of TV sets and Buddhas looking into Paik’s boxes. Eventually the artist returned to Korea after 34 years, knowing that if a country ’is influential in culture, it is powerful in the world’.
Amanda Kim makes excellent use of what footage she has uncovered to frame Paik’s life and recover a time whose effects still reverberate today — Paik fled the Civil War in Korea and the 38th parallel only to watch the Wall go up in Berlin, and she integrates his personal past in Occupied Korea into his work. There is, though, much fun to be had watching some eccentrics at play here. (Little is said about his wife, who was a ‘vagina painter’).
Paik’s daring ‘Good Morning Mr Orwell’ live New Year telecast from Paris and the US at the start of 1984, anchored by an increasingly drunken George Plimpton, is a highlight of the film, with a stoned and sweaty Allen Ginsberg staring boggle-eyed into the camera. It makes you miss the days when everything wasn’t quite so smooth and superficial — days, you realise, Paik knew, before everyone else, would come to an end.
Production companies: JBS Arts, Curatorial
International sales: Dogwoof, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Amanda Kim, Jennifer Stockman, David Koh, Amanda Kim, Amy Hobby, Jesse Wann, Marika Munro
Cinematography: Nelson Walker
Music: Will Epstein/Ryuichi Sakamoto
Editing: Taryn Gould
Main (voice) cast: Nam June Park’s writings read by Steven Yuen