‘Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV’ review: A baffling picture
More often than not, you’ll see a documentary about a portrait of the artist so beautifully created, about a figure of such singular charm, whose art is so perfectly presented through the documentary format, that you can’t believe it when it’s over. The movie didn’t exist yet. He feels, in his way, necessary. “Nam June Paik: Moon is the oldest televisionLike that. Directed by Amanda Kim (it’s her first feature, and so well done that I expect it to be the first of many), it’s a tantalizing portrait of Nam Joon Paik, the Korean-born revolutionary video artist who, in the late 1960s and 1970s, In the past, he did nothing less than invent an art form.
When it first became famous, some 50 years ago, you’d go see Nam June Paik’s installation somewhere like the Museum of Modern Art, and it might look weird and weird — a tower of stacked TV screens, all flashing what seemed like the squiggly visual equivalent of commentary. It was weird and kind of gripping, but part of me thought: what does this do to a file museum? It’s not that there wasn’t anywhere. Is that the concept of “video art” appeared, in its formative days, to be a kind of paradox of the technology age, almost a conceptualization, like the art of Marcel Duchamp or the music of John Cage.
In fact, as the documentary shows, Cage, with his avant-garde classical musical moves electrifying the audience, was a god to Nam-joon Baek. Paik first saw Cage perform in Germany in 1958, the night that changed his life. He came to see his entire existence prior to this as “BC” (before Cage), and the two eventually became close friends. Paek, born into one of the wealthiest families in Korea, originally planned to be a classical pianist. Arnold Schoenberg was the first 20th century innovator of 12-tone music. The jarring, non-harmonic harmonies that, for decades, have left classical music audiences sometimes fascinated and often confused. Pike initially wanted to play the piano and compose like Schoenberg, and as soon as he saw Cage, a world full of dangers opened up to him.
Having fled with his family from Seoul in 1950, during the Korean War, Paek lived and studied in Hong Kong, Tokyo, West Germany and then Tokyo again. In 1962, he acquired the Sony Port-a-Pak, the first commercially available video recorder. That same year he joined the experimental artist group Fluxus, whose 20 or so members include Yoko Ono, Joseph Boyz, and Jonas Mekas. They saw themselves as a rebellious force that spoke to Bayek. He was in rebellion against his father, whom he hated, and part of what drew him to John Cage was that in doing things like smashing pianos, Cage was, in Pike’s view, overthrowing the – almost colonial – primacy of Western music.
However, part of the charm of Pike’s story is that even when he moved to New York and signed on to what would become the guerrilla art movements of the late 1960s, he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. He wanted to attack the status quo – which a lot of people did at the time, producing a lot of really bad educational “destructive” art. (You could argue that there is nothing more bourgeois than their attempt to destroy bourgeois values.) Pike’s version of this was his collaboration with the onetime topless classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, who got them on the hook for violating the rules of propriety. All of them were very rebellious, but on a creative level they preached to the avant-garde choir. And Pike, who didn’t have any money (he fed himself on the $10 a week he begged and borrowed), was in America on a travel visa and risked being expelled from the country.
That was when Paik was installed on TV – and as iconic as TV has become he sat – that he began to discover a way to unify the motives of his art. He applied for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and here’s an irony for you: The foundation’s executive director who oversaw the arts’ funding, Howard Klein, was a music critic for The New York Times, criticizing Pike’s performance. But he immediately recognized the potential of Pike’s video vision – and over time he became the financial godfather. An early collaboration with WGBH, Boston’s public television station, was an experiment that turned television on its head. Pike’s visual noodle aired shortly after prime time, but proved too expensive to produce (studio time came to $5,000 an hour).
He knew he would have to figure out a way to do it that was, he said, as cheap as making a Xerox. He created it by teaming up with Japanese electronics engineer Shuya Abe to invent the versatile color TV synthesizer. It was an imaginary device that allows you to take a video image and manipulate it in every way. Armed with this technology, Paik has effectively converted your TV screen into a file canvas. The Moon Is Oldest Television talks a lot about the meaning of his art, and everything he projected, from the internet to the all-time-distraction society. But the first thing to say about what Paik did, and why he’s such a great artist, is that his video art has been beautiful. He was throbbing and throbbing with the splendor of a liquid mutant anesthetic. And, as we can see in one of his printed notes, this was his intention – to work with the freedom and sensuality of Picasso or Pollock. His use of color is as dazzling as Warhol’s, and his play of shapes against a smudged electromagnetic backdrop is a kind of satirical commentary on the hyper-hypnotic unreality of television.
In “Moon Is the Oldest TV,” Pike, who died in 2006, appeared as both a sinister and weary character—the artist as an explorer of uncharted terrain, always tweaking and challenging, given his provocative brainstorming (“I use technology in order to hate it”). properly”), with an almost mystical connection to the arsenal of electronic media he wielded like a paintbrush plugged in. One of the deep pleasures of “Moon Is the Oldest TV” is that the prophetic quality of Paik’s art is easier to see now, and thus seems more accessible and perhaps more joyful. He used his multiple screens, sometimes hundreds of them, to create a sense of a community flooded with information at every moment. That he found a bold new beauty in it doesn’t mean he wasn’t also up to the question of this brave new world.
Pike lived modestly at the Mercer Street Artists’ Co-Op. But it was in 1974, when he unveiled the TV Buddha, in which the Buddha himself is seen on television, that his fame began. Around the same time, “Global Groove” felt like a hypnotic dream of what YouTube would become. Paik was Asian, channeling the magic of the future, and felt like a pioneer in an art world still dominated, in an unbalanced way, by Americans and Europeans. And Bayek knew how to play for the media. In his slightly broken English, he was giving off his cuteness Thoughts (He coined the term “electronic highway”), and he had a potent allure.
The documentary allows us to witness his epic installations, such as a giant neon map of the United States containing an ever-changing mix of history unfolding on dozens of screens. And we see his legendary misstep, “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” the first international satellite installation, broadcast on New Year’s Day 1984 and intended as a rebuke to George Orwell’s dystopian vision. But it was hosted by the tedious George Plimpton and proved to be a compendium of overly scaled, unrehearsed, and scattershot live and recorded clips (although a couple of the clips we see are kind of magical).
It doesn’t matter. Fin Pike had a let’s try soul even his indiscretions are worth it. It was cosmic yet playful, and the opposite of pretentious. This is built into his methodology. After all, he was creating high art…on TV! He continued to work, coming to accumulate greater insights, and nothing stood in his way until he suffered a stroke in 1996, which seriously disabled him physically. Over the next decade, his health deteriorated, but his 2000 show at the Guggenheim, of which we see footage, was absolutely stunning: green lasers zig-zagging from the floor up the atrium, which had a hypothetical effect. ladder to heaven. It may be the most moving piece he has ever done. When you get to the end of “Moon Is the Oldest TV,” she lets you know he’s there, watching us all watch ourselves on TV, and thinking with a grin, “I’m still watching.”