Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Amanda Kim

An overview of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik, Moon is the Oldest TV not only offers a gateway to those unfamiliar with his work, the film will also charm Paik’s many devotees.

In examining his varied career, Amanda Kim’s documentary pays due reverence to Paik’s innovation in the field of video art. What we take for granted did not exist until Paik began experimenting with electronic imagery in the 1960’s. His struggle to get video art taken seriously is a journey through Westernised cultural ideals and why they persist. Paik’s determination to blast apart the binary of Western Art / Other is at the centre of this documentary. Paik was not only ahead of the game, he was rewriting the rules as he went along.

Kim takes us through Paik’s early years. He grew up in Japan-occupied Korea, and started off as a composer. His life changed when he attended a John Cage concert in 1958. The post-war audience were not ready for Cage’s challenging soundscape, but Paik was transformed. He began to fuse music and performance art to “destroy the icon and subvert it”. He joined Fluxus, a radical art group (including Yoko Ono and Joseph Beuys), and he began to take an interest in the power, and influence, of television. Kim explores Paik’s idea of replicating and distorting images to create new meanings. There is no template for this: everything Paik initiates is fundamentally original. With the introduction of the VTR (video tape recorder), Paik’s work takes on a new autonomy. He plays with colour TV synthesisers to create a “digital mirage”. The documentary also shows the influence of Paik’s work – we see his psychedelic colours and motifs in music videos for Prince and Technotronic. What is especially striking is that Paik could see the way forward for digitalised information – he coined the term “electronic superhighway” in 1974.

This is a film packed with biographical detail, but what Kim’s documentary really gets across is Paik’s personality: joyous, anarchic and searching, right up to the very end. Moon is the Oldest TV doesn’t take itself too seriously: the absurdist tones in Paik’s early collaborations with American cellist Charlotte Moorman are celebrated. You feel that their excitement in unpicking the ideas of an imperious, and unshakable, canon of Western music.

While the structure of this documentary is very much an A-Z of Paik’s life and career, it is characterised with an exuberance that dovetails with its subject. Steven Yeun (from Minari) voices Paik’s words, which are interwoven with a flood of imagery. Paik was gifted with tremendous energy, always with several projects on the go. In the latter stages of the film, it is upsetting to see him slowed down by ill health.

Moon is the Oldest TV memoralises a Warholian creator, but Paik’s humanity – a desire to see communication across divides; parity between cultures – is what stands out. Ahead of his time, Paik’s maverick style; his insistence on art as statement, still has a lot to teach us.

Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TVwill be released in cinemas on19 May.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Exuberant, anarchic fun

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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