The creative documentary looks into the life and career of the father of video art.
Korean-born Nam June Paik was a forward-thinking artist who lived on the fringes of poverty for a large part of his adulthood. Although he’s recognized now as the father of video art (he also coined the term “electronic superhighway”), for most of his career, his creations were too challenging for the larger art world to appreciate. In her debut documentary feature, director Amanda Kim celebrates the man and the artist in Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV.
Kim incorporates Paik’s stylistic influence into her storytelling. Her film is supported by executive producers such as actor Steven Yeun, Fab 5 Freddy, and L.A. artist collective GYOPO. Yeun also reads letters and journals by Paik, including some parts in German.
Through fast-moving edits, we learn how Paik’s original plans for life as a musician in Germany were disrupted by a 1958 concert by avant-garde composer John Cage. They quickly became friends; Paik says Cage “gave me courage to be free.” Thus begins Paik’s own performance art and his revolt against control.
Although some of Paik’s art involves an experiential element, Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV does its best to portray his creations like we are in the room with them. From his zany collaborations with musician Charlotte Moorman to his incorporation of televisions in art (he was the first to do so, in 1963) to his later video installations, Paik’s works involve technology in a way that hadn’t been done before. The many artists interviewed in Kim’s documentary praise his prescience; his “Global Groove” PBS special is referred to as a precursor to YouTube. The filmmaker even uses a split screen to compare scenes from “Global Grooves” with the music videos it influenced a decade later.
There’s a sense of wonder and revolution to Kim’s film. Paik’s aim of making “technology ridiculous” comes through in the interviews and the examples from his body of work. Through the use of almost hypnotic visuals, Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV acknowledges Paik’s vision while teaching the audience. The documentary makes for such a unique, immersive viewing experience that I was sad when it ended.