Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Nam June Paik was a polymath, and iconoclast, an iconographer, philosopher, visionary, a man who pleaded for inclusiveness and one who was consistently interstitial. Known to many as the ‘Father of video art.’ the Seoul born artist was a leading figure in the avant-garde. He coined the term ‘electronic superhighway’ which labeled him a modern-day Nostradamus. He predicted the way the internet would work, and saw that it would be a sea of information we would be lost in.

Born into a wealthy family in Seoul, he fell out with his businessman father who was a collaborator in the Japanese occupation. During the fifties. the family fled to Tokyo where Nam June began his education centered on aesthetics and the work of composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1957 he moved to Berlin where he met Joseph Beuys and other artists, and watched as the Berlin Wall was constructed, which reminded him of the partition of Korea.

Great art can can express resistance to the machinery of war and oppression. Nam June became involved with Fluxus, a group of artists that included Yoko Ono and other cultural activists. Through Beuys he met composer John Cage, in whom Nam June saw the spark that would ignite his work – he classified his life as BC (Before Cage) and AC (After Cage).

Alice Kim’s documentary interviews Marina Abramovic, gives the documentary its name, and other artists who were inspired and encouraged by Nam Jun, and art historians who place his work into context. A wide range of archival material gives a picture of a man who would rather “make mistakes for a reason than succeed for no reason.”

Nam June travelled to New York in 1964 with no money but with his head brimming with ideas. His art transitioned to a new medium – television. He was interested in investigating how a propaganda machine (the WWII-era single-channel radios that Hitler used to deliver Nazi propaganda, for example) could be “talked back to” and used by an audience express opposition. He noted how Asians were displayed on American television as ‘others’ not just through their position as enemies in the Vietnam war, but also through racist caricatures as villains or hapless comic relief. One of his most important works, Global Groove 1973, was in part a deconstruction of mass media imagery and an imagination of how television could be used to bring people together.

Shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nam June raised hackles and heckles with his robot with genitalia that quoted Kennedy’s famous speech “Ask not what your country can do for you…” while shitting out beans. When his frequent collaborator Charlotte Moorman was arrested in 1968 for indecency during one of their performances, he realized that he was in danger. He had no country he could call home. South Korea was not allowing people who lived in Western countries back into the country because it was a “democracy only in name.”

Avant-gardists are rarely rewarded during their lives, but Allen Ginsberg. John Cage and others with whom Nam June associated were in a more privileged position that he was. Living in extreme poverty and putting every cent into hugely expensive ventures, Nam June needed the support of the mainstream art community. He called on everyone to help get him sponsorship which eventually came through the Rockefeller Foundation. His work was profoundly misunderstood by the establishment and he struggled for years to find ways to fund his art.

His breakthrough work was an installation which showed Buddha watching himself on television. Previously Nam June had stated that people who became too successful became stale and re-used the idea that got them success over and over which is something Nam June did himself with the Buddha.

On January 1st, 1984 Nam June organized a live world-wide television event titled ‘Good Morning, Mr. Orwell’ to show that civilization had not been submerged into double-think and that there was hope for the future. Staged between New York and Paris. the event included artists Allen Ginsburg, Salvador Dalí, Joseph Beuys, Laurie Anderson, Merce Cunningham, The Thompson Twins, and an extremely drunk George Plimpton. The program was chaotic, but had over a million viewers in America and France and over six-million in South Korea. The disasterpiece gave Nam June his first opportunity to travel to his homeland in over thirty years.

Alice Kim’s film brings to life a pioneer of the arts whose convictions were his art. Steven Yuen reads Nam June’s journals and letters which show his sense of humour and his fierce dedication to his work and using art to bring people together. Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV is a timely reminder that we can be human and connected in a world filled with screens, and that we can indeed change the narrative of passivity to active control of our consciousnesses in the new wave of mis/disinformation and propaganda.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.