Even those who have little to no interest in outsider art should find themselves easily charmed and informed by Amanda Kim’s first feature length documentary, Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV. Both a personal profile of a unique human being whose story is worth sharing and a deep dive into the work of an art world pioneer, Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV gives a frequently aped but rarely cited talent their proper due. The works being produced might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Kim shows that the artist, chosen medium, and overall message changed the way people look at visual art forever.
Born in Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, Nam June Paik initially studied as a classically trained musician, moving to Germany in 1956 to pursue his degree. Although Paik had no illusions about becoming a famous, masterful composer, he found little excitement in the classics. An appearance by avant garde musical pioneer John Cage changed Paik’s life forever, opening the young artist up to a world of limitless creative possibilities. Eventually, Germany – where his flights of fancy weren’t immediately accepted or understood – became too stifling for Paik, and he knew he had to move to New York City if he wanted to seriously work on the cutting edge of art and design. There, he would fall in with an up and coming art collective known as Fluxus, which included the likes of Jonas Mekas (who sponsored Paik’s visa, despite being broke), Yoko Ono, and cellist/frequent collaborator Charlotte Moorman among its ranks. The increasing influence of television became a major fixation for Paik upon his work, eventually becoming known as the progenitor of video installation art.
Nam June Paik might not be a household name, but chances are, even the uninitiated have seen echoes of his works in any number of films, music videos, or installations. He was on the forefront of almost single handedly bringing digital effects closer to mainstream acceptability and usage. He was the first person responsible for coining the term “electronic highway” all the way back in 1974. His works, which often blended media criticism with visual and performance based art, are now heralded as prophetic touchstones. But for the most part, Paik remained somewhere around the margins of pop culture history because video based installation art is one of the hardest forms of media to sell or circulate.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (which gets its title from one of his most famous works) is at its best when talking about the artist’s tremendous vision, but Kim never forgets to examine what made such an enigmatic person tick. Both referred to at different points as “the father of video art” by supporters and dismissed as a “cultural terrorist” by critics who didn’t understand the appeal of his work, Kim cuts through the noise and allows Paik’s own words to provide a necessary amount of balance. It’s wonderful to see famous artists, curators, academics, and critics (one of whom became an unlikely lifeline to the increasingly impoverished auteur) all speaking so lovingly about Paik in a combination of new and archival talking head interviews, but it’s the assembly of the subject’s own unique points of view and experiences that provides the best context. There are few documentaries that can make their point as succinctly as Kim does in Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV with a single quotation from the film’s subject. No one can explain the art in play better than Paik himself, who once stated, “I use technology in order to hate it properly.”
Paik, whose written letters, correspondences, and press releases are read by Steven Yeun (who also executive produces), comes across as a showman, intellect, and impish shit disturber who frequently described himself first and foremost as an entertainer. He believes in his work deeply, even when others don’t, and is always tickled whenever someone shows an interest. Often mumbling his way through a number of different languages that he spoke rather poorly, Paik was a talent who refused to be constrained by any sort of barrier. Kim’s documentary reflects that kind of energy by moving things along at a brisk pace and being just as playful with Paik’s work as the artist was in their time. Whether talking about Paik’s influential PBS special, Global Groove, his beloved TV Buddha sculpture (which almost singlehandedly saved him from going broke), or the hilarity of his NYE broadcast/trainwreck Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (from the director of Dirty Dancing!), Kim approaches her subject with equal parts amusement and respect.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV might be a bit straightforward and standard in execution for its subject’s personal tastes, but Kim’s film succeeds in bringing his legendary works to a wider and increasingly appreciative audience. Paik has been denied a proper place in pop culture history for far too long, and Kim’s likeable, accessible biography and analysis should hopefully play a part in rectifying that oversight.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV opens in Toronto at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, March 31, 2023. It opens at The Cinematheque in Winnipeg on April 21, and at VIFF on April 28.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (Trailer) from filmswelike on Vimeo.
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