Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV
March 24–April 27, 2023
Nam June Paik was born nearly a century ago in Korea, yet his name has remained unknown outside of the art world—despite having created a voluminous body of work spanning music, performance, writings, video art, and sculptures, as well as coining the term “electronic superhighway” and presaging much of our mediated age. Even within the art world his legacy is sketchy at best, particularly to contemporary artists, many of whom were still in the nursery during his landmark Guggenheim retrospective in 2000 or when he died in 2006. Amanda Kim’s new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV is a corrective tour-de-force, a deeply moving portrait of Paik and, for new generations and old, a much-needed introduction to this towering artist and pioneering polymath.
Nam June Paik opens with a butterfly image on a TV, as Paik vocalizes singsongy test notes into a microphone to manipulate the two electronically generated fluttering loops. The buoyant notes, amplified by a sonorous synth score, quickly devolve into the hacking cough of Paik’s unpracticed voice, capturing his works’ frequent tension between the soaring, sublime futurity of technology and the unabashedly and ridiculously all too human. The butterfly in Buddhism symbolizes freedom as well as transformation—two tenets central to Paik. As heir to his mentor John Cage’s dictum of artistic license and liberation, Paik embraced unfettered aesthetic freedom; his protean nature was one of constant experimentation, transforming technology to render it more human.
Paik’s lifelong Buddhism—evident in works such as TV Buddha—also arguably permeated his worldview, especially the doctrine’s emphasis on joy: in every shot, Paik is smiling radiantly, revealing a jubilant nature often verging on the impishly irreverent. The film amply captures his sense of the ludic which found its way into much of his art, such as his 1964 Robot K-456—a lumbering junkyard of objets trouvés, the very opposite of a sleek cyborg, or of Mozart’s sprightly piano concerto K. 456, after which it was playfully named.
This happy-go-lucky attitude and charm endowed Paik with an uncanny ability to garner support for his ostensibly outlandish projects—from outré musical collaborations with the initially dubious Charlotte Moorman in 1964, to twenty years later, winning the backing of TV stations on three continents to realize Good Morning Mr. Orwell. This groundbreaking simulcast experiment was a transnational extravaganza reaching more than twenty-five million viewers. A classic trickster, Paik was a perpetually liminal character, neither fully Korean, American, nor European. How much of his prankster persona was a result of the “colored” person’s unspoken burden, that pressure to captivate via performance in order to maintain a place at the table in the lily white art worlds of post-war Germany and New York City? Paik jokingly declares in the film, “I am a poor man from a poor country, so I have to entertain people every second,” making explicit the exotic’s barter of performativity in exchange for visibility. But we learn this disarmingly facetious avowal is also disingenuous: Paik may have been a struggling artist in the early decades of his career, but he in fact came from one of the richest families in Korea, “from a chaebol,” (mega-corporation) as his nephew avers, “like the Samsung family.” So perhaps it was not so much the scrappy trickster as it was the privileged son of Korea’s elite that imbued his sense of sanguine confidence. Or, perhaps it was a bit of both.
Though Paik’s father was one of Korea’s wealthiest businessmen, he treated his family terribly, fueling Paik’s self-professed Oedipus complex. But we see his rebellious spirit manifested first in a youthful Marxism, then eventually subsumed into his art’s iconoclastic streak. His Oedipal impulse was jestingly expressed in a mock “castration” of John Cage, cutting off his tie in an early Fluxus performance, and in drolly distorting the faces of American presidents in his Magnet TV experiments. These latter works conflate the Orwellian Big Brother with the Oedipal Big Father with Paik’s admission: “I use technology in order to hate it properly.” Subverting not only technology but the sanctity of political icons, Paik was often a literal iconoclast (eikōn=image, klastes=breaker).
Beyond patriarchy, Kim’s film also shows the enduring impact of patrimony on Paik’s art. The film’s wealth of archival historical images of Korea during colonization and the war provide a rare glimpse into the country during the early twentieth century, for which many Korean Americans, like myself, have a visual hunger. The footage of Paik’s first return visit to Korea in 1984, after thirty-four years absence, is also an affecting homecoming of the prodigal son, now a national hero. Despite his decades of disconnection from his birth country, Paik’s global art was also deeply Korean, beyond the most obvious works such as the “Hanbok TVs” and the Tangun sculptures. At the core of Korean art is folk art, and this folk soulfulness subtly but undeniably thrums throughout Paik’s work, as seen in the tactile materiality of old burnished wood and natural materials, the attention to handicraft and bricolage, and the sense of the squat, sturdy, and earthy. The arc of the film, and trajectory of Paik’s career, ultimately address the quintessential question of all multi-hyphenate artists, as true in the twenty-first century as in the twentieth: how to unify one’s intersectionality and transcend one’s othered-ness to create work defying the limitations of genre, language, nation, and culture.
The director’s sensitivity to these cultural questions, and her cultural subjectivity, make fellow Asian Americans like myself feel thoroughly “seen” throughout the film. She includes commentators’ recognition of Fluxus as the first Western and global art movement that included Asians as core members (e.g. Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Shigeko Kubota)—a crucial fact that art history often elides. Kim includes Paik’s critiques of the Vietnam War and its era’s images: “Most Asian faces we encounter on the American TV screen are either miserable refugees, wretched prisoners, or hated dictators,” an excursus that feels validating and, in 2023, unfortunately, all too current.
Kim deftly navigates the tremendous amount of ground covered in this film, but at the expense of a few interviews, the film might have benefitted from a bit more on Paik’s writings, family, and art historical context. The rush to get through a life teeming with personages also gives short shrift to Paik’s wife, Shigeko Kubota, a major video and performance artist in her own right. Kubota's prescience seems to have averted catastrophe on at least one occasion, saving Paik’s entire body of work from loss in a loft flood. Unfortunately, in the film’s few cursory glimpses of her, she suffers coming off as rather clingy and nagging. But, overall, these are minor issues easily overlooked in the film’s otherwise remarkable achievement.
Paik never had children, but the film shows he mentored many. His perennially avuncular manner also bore something of the harabagi, or Korean grandfather. Notably, neither of the two key figures behind this film—producer Steven Yeun and director Amanda Kim—had been born yet when Paik was creating his seminal works such as TV-Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), Global Groove (1973), and TV Buddha (1974). Paik’s first museum retrospective at the Whitney in 1982 was a year before Yeun’s birth. For a futurist like Paik, it makes sense that his story be told by a generation young enough to be his grandchildren—a generation more in step with K-pop than the Korean War, and fully weaned on the mediated age he prophesied. If Paik was the most significant artist of Korean descent of the twentieth century, Yeun is rapidly becoming the acting analogue for the twenty first, a suitably high-profile choice to bring Paik to life in his thoughtful reading of his poignant letters and illuminating writings. The democratic impulse at the heart of Paik’s work is a good fit for this Hollywood production and for a debut helmed by a young unknown rather than an art world insider. Lacking art jargon and pedigrees, Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV is as wondrously accessible, exuberant, and enthralling as its subject. It rightfully situates Paik in the center of the avant-garde and reveals him to be a cultural figure as towering as his monumental video sculptures.