“I use technology in order to hate it properly.” — Nam June Paik

From pithy ironic maxims to autopsies of television sets, Korean-American artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006) was never one to shy from the ludic and strange. Referring to life prior to meeting John Cage as “BC,” Paik applied the composer’s avant-garde approach to his own performances with instruments physically reconfigured to wild — and often hilarious — effect. From pianos adorned with brassieres to violins dragged down the street by their strings, Paik insisted on mingling the banal with the classical, the tongue-in-cheek with the bow-on-strings.  

Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, Amanda Kim’s documentary on the late iconoclast, chronicles Paik’s gradual rise from performance artist to, as one pundit put it, “the foremost video artist in the world,” anticipating the dizzying ways in which electronic and digital culture would transform human discourse. Comprised of archival footage spanning the second half of the 20th century — from Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea to Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Paik’s 1984 international satellite “installation” aired live for 25 million viewers — Kim’s debut film pays tribute to one of the most irreverent and important artists of the modern age. Contextualizing the artist’s eccentric brilliance and technological prescience, an eclectic range of talking heads — David Ross, Holly Solomon, Park Seo-bo, and Marina Abramović among them — hold forth on Paik’s anarchic spirit and singular vision.

Starting out as a music student in Munich in the 1950s, Paik’s ascendance to art stardom was certainly not a smooth arc toward the sun. His initial work was met with befuddlement, if not disgust; financial and visa struggles plagued his time in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, leading to health issues once he reached middle age. After 34 years away from his home country, Paik returned in the mid-1980s with concerns that his leftist history could imperil his visit, only to be heralded as a national hero. One takeaway from Kim’s film is the price Paik paid to continue working as an artist. More than anything, though, he was fortunate to live long enough to see his talent achieve global success.

“Although I’m an artist, I’m not really concerned about the art world,” the polymath wrote, one of his many journal entries read aloud throughout the film by actor Steven Yeun. “I’m concerned about the whole world.” Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV glows with the glorious mess of this world’s technological desiderata — no less relevant now than when Paik sliced open a television in 1965.

Nam June Paik photographed by Peter Moore (© Northwestern University; image courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)

Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is screening at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through April 20 and at other select theaters nationwide.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...