Nam June Paik Documentary at Sundance Offers an Incisive Look at a Rarely Seen Side of Pioneering Video Artist’s Life
Amanda Kim’s new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV starts somewhere in the middle. It’s the 1950s, and within the first 20 minutes, we see the artist tranquilly playing a piano composition by Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian composer who ushered in a new kind of musical modernism. It’s hardly the Paik most people know.
Paik’s wild videos, sculptures, and performances exude a madcap creativity that’s all too rare these days. And so it feels like a relief when, a few minutes later, Paik can be seen slamming his fist against another piano, creating jolting stabs of sound. That’s more like it.
His transition from concert piano to avant-garde performance art didn’t come overnight. In voiceover, the actor Steven Yeun (Minari) reads a quotation from Paik in which he said he felt that his native Korea was “underdeveloped” during his childhood in the ’30s and ’40s, with little access to the creations of cutting-edge Westerners like Schoenberg. But when he arrived in West Germany in 1957, he encountered experimental music by John Cage and David Tudor, and learned what music—and, later, art—could really look like.
Most documentarians would have started out in the “underdeveloped” Korea that Paik spoke of, then gradually brought us to Munich, but Kim instead weaves his upbringing in Korea through his travails abroad. Moon Is the Oldest TV, which just made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, may at first appear to be little more than a conventional artist doc, with the requisite interviews from artists like Marina Abramović and Park Seo-bo. Kim instead spins Paik’s life story into a farther-reaching statement about what happens with Asian artists live in diaspora.
Moon Is the Oldest TV circles around Paik’s childhood in Korea, looping back to it as she charts his success in New York and his ascent as the world’s most popular video artist—a reputation he maintains today, 17 years after his death. This is not merely a documentary about any artist, but a Korean American one, and it’s this specificity which lends Kim’s film some importance in the crowded field of Paik studies.
As Kim smartly points out, existing diasporically allowed Paik to remake himself to his liking. “I am a poor man from a poor country, so I have to entertain people,” he once said. But this, as his nephew Ken Hakuta points out, wasn’t quite true. Paik’s was descended from a chaebol, or a wealthy, sprawling family conglomerate. Born in 1932 in Seoul, he grew up rich and was afforded opportunities few others were at a time when Japan violently controlled Korea.His family fled their native country in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War, and he eventually studied at the University of Tokyo.
Yet by the time he came to the U.S. in 1964, Paik had fashioned himself a Marxist and had begun making the kind of art that was just as unsellable then as it is now. He lived in poverty for years, though late-career success assured that he was financially stable.
In 1962, while living in Japan, he made the work Zen for Head, which involved dunking his head, his hands, and a tie into ink and dragging it across a long paper. By this point, he’d linked up with the Fluxus group, which made the then-radical gesture of luring cheap, everyday objects into the field of art-making and performance, and hebegun to think expansively in his art.
This looked little like what was being made in Paik’s homeland back then, and it’s often cast within the perspective of the New York avant-garde by Western art historians. Yet Paik couldn’t run away from South Korea entirely. The South Korean art historian Lee Youngwoo tells Kim that performances like Zen for Head are a bit like bibimbap, a Korean dish he describes as a little bit of everything.
It’s hard to say whether Paik would have agreed, especially since it often seemed at the time like his work only made sense when you considered what else was going on in New York. When artists like Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg were filling rooms with bizarro installations composed of tires, knickknacks, and trash, Paik was utilizing TV monitors, whose images he would torque into abstractions using magnets. TV was a new technology at the time, and Paik’s was a new kind of art, so naturally, it confused almost everyone. To many critics at the time, his shows seemed like nothing more than rooms full of broken TVs.
Paik was short-circuiting a form of media associated with a one-way stream of information. Here’s how Paik once described his works involving televisual material: “I use technology in order to hate it properly.” Consider this film a reminder that, barring only Jean-Luc Godard, no other 20th-century artist was better at speaking about their work using pithy one-liners.
Some understood Paik’s message loud and clear. Charlotte Moorman, a classically trained cellist, gamely participated in a number of Paik performances—including ones where she had to bow her instrument in the nude and wear little TV monitors over her breasts. (A similar one got her and Paik arrested for indecency.) Another was Shigeko Kubota, the video artist who wedded Paik in 1977.
I find Kim’s lack of attention to Kubota suspect. Kubota worked hard to support Paik, even helping him mount his 2000 Guggenheim Museum retrospective after he had a stroke, but you wouldn’t gain this from Moon Is the Oldest TV, where she only gets a few minutes of screentime. We also see a photo in which Paik films a nude Kubota standing inside a staircase-like sculpture with several monitors inset, each displaying her image. That’s actually a Kubota work from 1976, Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase—it’s on view now at the Museum of Modern Art—but you wouldn’t know that either based on Kim’s film, where it seems like a Paik piece. Each of them wouldn’t have been able to achieve the level of mastery their oeuvres are now known for without the other.
Kim’s telling of art history is shaky at times. There’s a sequence that focuses on the televisual junk that he sought to subvert. Edited rapid-fire like some of Paik’s later works, the imagery selected by Kim is filled with racist Asian stereotypes culled from Looney Toons and Full Metal Jacket. It’s true that Paik was talking back to TV, especially in later works, which are filled with warped, colorful pictures that are quite unlike the polished stuff that appears on the airwaves, but it seems like a leap to suggest that his work was specifically coming to grips with anti-Asian racism, based on the evidence presented in the film.
Paik’s work is frequently said to have prefigured a range of artistic creations, from music videos to post-internet art. Moon Is the Oldest TV reiterates that sentiment, juxtaposing music videos for songs by Prince and the Talking Heads with Paik’s televisual works. The style is so similar that Kim will successfully trick most viewers into thinking Paik even directed those videos.
But setting aside aesthetic affinities, music videos and Paik’s art don’t have a lot in common, and in this documentary, as in a host of recent surveys about art after the internet, there’s not a lot of specifics about how Paik’s work has proven so influential. David Ross, an important curator of video art, says early on, “Until I learned to understand him, it was hard to hear him.” Kim would’ve done better to listen a little harder to what Paik’s work was actually saying.
She’s more closely attuned to the way that Paik’s Korean heritage continued to haunt him. The country had a tortured relationship with him and other Korean émigrés—Dolores An, a friend of Paik, recalls that South Koreans “were afraid of Koreans abroad” during the ’60s—and so Paik didn’t return until 1984, more than three decades after he first left it. That same year, he had made Good Morning Mr. Orwell, a New Year’s Day broadcast that was simulcast across the globe; many of the Koreans who tuned in had never had the opportunity to see Paik’s art.
In the footage Kim offers, Paik is greeted by fans and journalists as soon as he and Kubota get off the plane, but the smile he wears seems to bear out a mixture of anxiety, melancholy, and genuine happiness over coming home for the first time in a long time. Much of his family was dead, and the country remained split in two, as it did when he departed it 34 years earlier, when his family left for Hong Kong. This was not the Korea he left behind. And yet, in this new South Korea, the show had to go on. Ever the energetic performer, Paik gave a masterful press conference. Kim includes footage of Paik, who decades later would become one of the country’s most beloved artists, being asked about the reception of his work in Korea. He grins and says, “One newspaper said Mr. Paik’s work is very weak. At least it’s photogenic.”