Film Review: Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV


Nam June Paik is commonly referred to as the “father of video art”. In her debut feature, director Amanda Kim chronicles Paik’s work from his early development in Berlin up to his eventual return to Korea in the 1980s. Through archival footage and contemporary interviews, Moon Is the Oldest TV is an informative and gripping examination of one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

“I use technology in order to hate it more properly”. This famous quotation by Paik – reproduced in the opening seconds of Moon is The Oldest TV – amply sums up this film’s portrayal of the iconic Korean artist: an intellectual rebel, something of a trickster, at once fascinated and repelled by his medium, determined to subvert its tyranny. Throughout her documentary, Kim paints Paik as a prophet, predicting a journey of technological progress the apotheosis of which we are only now beginning to realise.

Paik fled Korea with his family during the Korean war to Japan, studying aesthetics at the University of Tokyo, but it wasn’t until he left for Munich in 1957 that his career as an artist took off. It was there that he encountered John Cage, a radical composer whose work led the avant-garde in upending musical and aesthetic norms. Paik’s description of being radicalised by Cage’s music at one of his concerts while archival footage plays of stuffy old men grimacing and jamming their fingers in their ears is as touching as it is funny, establishing a life-long friendship between the two.

Paik and Cage would become founding members of the Fluxus art movement, along with such other luminaries of mid-twentieth contemporary art scene as Allan Ginsberg and Charlotte Moorman, a concert cellist whom Paik befriended and eventually brought into his work as it evolved away from music and into video and TV installations. Kim’s use of archival footage without an over-reliance on modern talking heads interviews deftly conjures the vibrancy and spirit of the age, offering as much psychological insight as historical chronology. Moreover, Kim lets Paik’s work speak for itself; his experiments in video imagery, many of which are reproduced here, remain as captivating, radical and inspiring as ever. In the shadow of his work and life in Germany, the US and Japan, sits the bitter memory of Paik’s homeland and a tarnished relationship with his father, who was ashamed of Paik’s provocative art.

The themes of politics, rebellion, communication, sex and self-expression run throughout Kim’s film, intersecting at key moments, inevitably bending back towards Korea as a site of trauma and redemption. These themes find something of a resolution in Paik’s eventual return in 1984 along with his production of the satellite TV event Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. Good Morning, Mr. Orwell was a disastrous production, with even its creator admitting its technical failures, yet as a metaphor for the act of communication that Paik has been driving towards his whole life it is central to his life’s work.

The documentary’s final segment, after Paik suffered a stroke late in his life, is perhaps the film’s most moving, not because of his illness but because of a sense of a life and body of work that has found its completion. For most of his career, Paik was dismissed by critics and struggled financially, but as director Kim amply demonstrates, his work has had tremendous influence on both fine art and popular culture. Moon Is the Oldest TV is at once a celebration of that work and testament to its incalculable value.

Christopher Machell

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