Amanda Kim’s new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV begins someplace within the center. It’s the Nineteen Fifties, and throughout the first 20 minutes, we see the artist tranquilly taking part in a piano composition by Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian composer who ushered in a brand new form of musical modernism. It’s hardly the Paik most individuals know.
Paik’s wild movies, sculptures, and performances exude a madcap creativity that’s all too uncommon lately. And so it appears like a aid when, a couple of minutes later, Paik could be seen slamming his fist towards one other piano, creating jolting stabs of sound. That’s extra prefer it.
His transition from live performance piano to avant-garde efficiency artwork didn’t come in a single day. In voiceover, the actor Steven Yeun (Minari) reads a citation from Paik by which he stated he felt that his native Korea was “underdeveloped” throughout his childhood within the ’30s and ’40s, with little entry to the creations of cutting-edge Westerners like Schoenberg. However when he arrived in West Germany in 1957, he encountered experimental music by John Cage and David Tudor, and discovered what music—and, later, artwork—might actually seem like.
Most documentarians would have began out within the “underdeveloped” Korea that Paik spoke of, then steadily introduced us to Munich, however Kim as an alternative weaves his upbringing in Korea by means of his travails overseas. Moon Is the Oldest TV, which simply made its premiere on the Sundance Movie Competition, could at first seem like little greater than a standard artist doc, with the requisite interviews from artists like Marina Abramović and Park Web optimization-bo. Kim as an alternative spins Paik’s life story right into a farther-reaching assertion about what occurs with Asian artists reside in diaspora.
Moon Is the Oldest TV circles round Paik’s childhood in Korea, looping again to it as she charts his success in New York and his ascent because the world’s hottest video artist—a repute he maintains at present, 17 years after his loss of life. This isn’t merely a documentary about any artist, however a Korean American one, and it’s this specificity which lends Kim’s movie some significance within the crowded discipline of Paik research.
As Kim well factors out, current diasporically allowed Paik to remake himself to his liking. “I’m a poor man from a poor nation, so I’ve to entertain folks,” he as soon as stated. However this, as his nephew Ken Hakuta factors out, wasn’t fairly true. Paik’s was descended from a chaebol, or a rich, sprawling household conglomerate. Born in 1932 in Seoul, he grew up wealthy and was afforded alternatives few others have been at a time when Japan violently managed Korea. His household fled their native nation in 1950 on the outbreak of the Korean Battle, and he finally studied on the College of Tokyo.
But by the point he got here to the U.S. in 1964, Paik had customary himself a Marxist and had begun making the form of artwork that was simply as unsellable then as it’s now. He lived in poverty for years, although late-career success assured that he was financially secure.
In 1962, whereas dwelling in Japan, he made the work Zen for Head, which concerned dunking his head, his arms, and a tie into ink and dragging it throughout an extended paper. By this level, he’d linked up with the Fluxus group, which made the then-radical gesture of luring low-cost, on a regular basis objects into the sphere of art-making and efficiency, and he begun to suppose expansively in his artwork.
This seemed little like what was being made in Paik’s homeland again then, and it’s usually forged throughout the perspective of the New York avant-garde by Western artwork historians. But Paik couldn’t run away from South Korea completely. The South Korean artwork historian Lee Youngwoo tells Kim that performances like Zen for Head are a bit like bibimbap, a Korean dish he describes as slightly little bit of every part.
Nonetheless from Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV.
Courtesy Sundance Institute
It’s exhausting to say whether or not Paik would have agreed, particularly because it usually appeared on the time like his work solely made sense while you thought-about what else was happening in New York. When artists like Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg have been filling rooms with bizarro installations composed of tires, knickknacks, and trash, Paik was using TV screens, whose pictures he would torque into abstractions utilizing magnets. TV was a brand new know-how on the time, and Paik’s was a brand new form of artwork, so naturally, it confused virtually everybody. To many critics on the time, his exhibits appeared like nothing greater than rooms filled with damaged TVs.
Paik was short-circuiting a type of media related to a one-way stream of data. Right here’s how Paik as soon as described his works involving televisual materials: “I exploit know-how so as to hate it correctly.” Take into account this movie a reminder that, barring solely Jean-Luc Godard, no different Twentieth-century artist was higher at talking about their work utilizing pithy one-liners.
Some understood Paik’s message loud and clear. Charlotte Moorman, a classically skilled cellist, gamely participated in a lot of Paik performances—together with ones the place she needed to bow her instrument within the nude and put on little TV screens over her breasts. (The same one acquired her and Paik arrested for indecency.) One other was Shigeko Kubota, the video artist who wedded Paik in 1977.
I discover Kim’s lack of consideration to Kubota suspect. Kubota labored exhausting to assist Paik, even serving to him mount his 2000 Guggenheim Museum retrospective after he had a stroke, however you wouldn’t achieve this from Moon Is the Oldest TV, the place she solely will get a couple of minutes of screentime. We additionally see a photograph by which Paik movies a nude Kubota standing inside a staircase-like sculpture with a number of screens inset, every displaying her picture. That’s truly a Kubota work from 1976, Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase—it’s on view now on the Museum of Fashionable Artwork—however you wouldn’t know that both primarily based on Kim’s movie, the place it looks as if a Paik piece. Every of them wouldn’t have been capable of obtain the extent of mastery their oeuvres are actually recognized for with out the opposite.
Kim’s telling of artwork historical past is shaky at occasions. There’s a sequence that focuses on the televisual junk that he sought to subvert. Edited rapid-fire like a few of Paik’s later works, the imagery chosen by Kim is crammed with racist Asian stereotypes culled from Looney Toons and Full Metallic Jacket. It’s true that Paik was speaking again to TV, particularly in later works, that are crammed with warped, colourful footage which might be fairly not like the polished stuff that seems on the airwaves, nevertheless it looks as if a leap to recommend that his work was particularly coming to grips with anti-Asian racism, primarily based on the proof offered within the movie.
Paik’s work is incessantly stated to have prefigured a spread of inventive creations, from music movies to post-internet artwork. Moon Is the Oldest TV reiterates that sentiment, juxtaposing music movies for songs by Prince and the Speaking Heads with Paik’s televisual works. The type is so related that Kim will efficiently trick most viewers into pondering Paik even directed these movies.
However setting apart aesthetic affinities, music movies and Paik’s artwork don’t have quite a bit in widespread, and on this documentary, as in a bunch of latest surveys about artwork after the web, there’s not plenty of specifics about how Paik’s work has confirmed so influential. David Ross, an essential curator of video artwork, says early on, “Till I discovered to know him, it was exhausting to listen to him.” Kim would’ve carried out higher to pay attention slightly more durable to what Paik’s work was truly saying.
She’s extra intently attuned to the way in which that Paik’s Korean heritage continued to hang-out him. The nation had a tortured relationship with him and different Korean émigrés—Dolores An, a good friend of Paik, remembers that South Koreans “have been afraid of Koreans overseas” throughout the ’60s—and so Paik didn’t return till 1984, greater than three a long time after he first left it. That very same 12 months, he had made Good Morning Mr. Orwell, a New Yr’s Day broadcast that was simulcast throughout the globe; most of the Koreans who tuned in had by no means had the chance to see Paik’s artwork.
Within the footage Kim presents, Paik is greeted by followers and journalists as quickly as he and Kubota get off the aircraft, however the smile he wears appears to bear out a combination of tension, melancholy, and real happiness over coming residence for the primary time in a very long time. A lot of his household was useless, and the nation remained break up in two, because it did when he departed it 34 years earlier, when his household left for Hong Kong. This was not the Korea he left behind. And but, on this new South Korea, the present needed to go on. Ever the energetic performer, Paik gave a masterful press convention. Kim consists of footage of Paik, who a long time later would grow to be one of many nation’s most beloved artists, being requested concerning the reception of his work in Korea. He grins and says, “One newspaper stated Mr. Paik’s work may be very weak. At the least it’s photogenic.”