We Don’t Know Where the Shore Is
By Grace Byron
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV
Dir. Amanda Kim, U.S., Greenwich Entertainment
Moon Is the Oldest TV is both the name of an early work by renowned video artist Nam June Paik and Amanda Kim’s new film about his life. Directed with anarchic aplomb, the buoyant documentary successfully evokes the electric sense of play that defined Paik’s work. As the father of video art who frequently made prophecies about the digital world, he’s certainly overdue for such a film. Kim unearths numerous gems of Paik talking about his obsession with technology, which occasionally bordered on the whimsical. From repurposing TVs as sculpture to pioneering live broadcasts, he revolutionized how artists utilize the screen in their work.
Primarily through archival clips, with occasional voiceover by Steven Yeun reading the artist’s letters and essays, Kim frames Paik’s life as a mission to conquer miscommunication. His life and art demonstrated his tireless desire to reach others across the borders of war, language, or family. Perhaps it makes sense then that Paik originally trained as a composer. Similar to the Zen koans he often used to answer questions, Paik took comfort in alternative communication. Born in Korea, he moved around often, eventually studying music in Germany. His early compositions were more performance art than nocturnes. While descending into the world of avant-garde music, he met John Cage in Berlin. “My life started one evening in 1958; 1957 was B.C.—Before Cage,” he says. Cage immediately took Paik in as a confidant and peer. Similar to Cage, Paik’s work focused more on medium than message. After his personal revolution, Paik’s work shifted from composition to performance and began to baffle the art world.
Inspired by fellow artists in the interdisciplinary arts community known as Fluxus, “Étude for Pianoforte” found Paik breaking a piano, running off the stage, slashing Cage’s tie, and abruptly exiting the room. He would then call from a secondary location and tell the audience the performance had concluded. Cage recounts in a jolly tone that it’s amusing to think back on this, but that it wasn’t very funny at the time. That seems the mark of Paik’s early avant-garde work—more fun to read about than to experience. After learning how to tinker with televisions, Paik set up a bunch of TVs in a house, toiling over coils and images for weeks. When critics were let in and able to manipulate lines of static on screens, they were less than impressed. Kim’s interview subjects explain how the disappointment of critics fueled Paik to further the restless experimentation that would later become so influential. Bringing the experimental into conversation with its greater context, Kim, late in the film, displays Paik’s video “Global Groove” next to music videos of the 1990s and 2000s, allowing the similarities to speak for themselves.
Kim never loses sight of how his identity as a Korean shaped his work. Kim crafts montages of news coverage contemporaneous with Paik’s career and the racist Yellow Peril propaganda spread throughout his lifetime. One talking head interviewee says Paik’s work was a bit of everything “like bibimbap.” As a child he grew up in a wealthy household, but clashed with his father after seeing how poorly his aunt was treated while working as the family’s maid. Paik later said this converted him to Marxism, though he would also often say he grew up poor. He was never a patriot, neither for politics nor artistic convention. No single country or medium held him. Kim juxtaposes Paik’s life in Korea and Germany, both of which experienced the erecting of physical borders during Paik’s life: the 38th parallel in Korea and the Berlin Wall in Germany.
Buddhism was a constant element in Paik’s work. One of his early works, “Zen for TV,” drew on his childhood experience with the religion explicitly. It was merely a line on a screen, a visual koan perhaps referencing the key Buddhist concept of mu, or nothingness. The critics weren’t impressed. Paik knew he had to get to New York: “If you want to make it in New York, you have to know where the party is.” He had difficulty with his visa until Jonas Mekas became his sponsor.
It was in New York in the late ’60s that Paik found his greatest collaborator, Charlotte Moorman. “Music and sex have never really been combined,” he said, fixing propellers onto Moorman’s breasts before fashioning a bra made of TVs for her to wear as she played cello. Works like “TV Bra” and “TV Cello” furthered his interest in the sculptural potential of TVs. What if the screen was as important as what was displayed on it? Paik and Moorman were deeply intertwined artistic partners, though Moorman was the only one of the pair arrested for public indecency. During this period, he created a television on which the phases of the moon could be manipulated by dials, which he titled “Moon Is the Oldest TV.” “It’s so true,” Marina Abramovic shows up to blithely confirm the title of the film, assisting Kim in choosing the koan as the title for the documentary.
After the long, exploratory focus given to his early years, the documentary speeds along to cover the ’70s to his death in 2006. “TV Buddha,” perhaps his most famous work, displays a Buddha watching himself on live TV in an endless loop. Not long after, he was honored with the first major retrospective of a video artist at the Whitney. In the years since, many have argued that Paik predicted the rise of the internet as a sort of “Electronic Superhighway.” Late in the documentary, while an interview subject is talking about calls he used to get from Paik at three in the morning, his phone rings. “That’s eerie,” he says of the timing. He goes on to explain one such call from Paik during which he amended his prophecy. The future, Paik said, was “not a highway, but a boat in the ocean; we don’t know where the shore is.”
The final movement of the film follows Paik dragging his violin around New York in elegy for John Cage and Charlotte Moorman. His friends began to die in quick succession, and Paik started to develop health problems. “The Buddha is punishing me for everything I did to it.” After chronicling his death, Kim does not leave us with a silly epilogue about Paik’s legacy as so many cinematic biographies tend to do. Instead, we’re allowed to sit in our boat, pondering where the shore is.