Nam June Paik died in 2006, one year before the first iPhone was released. Now that hand-held glowing screens have become as dominant as television once was, one misses that influential artist’s subversive spirit. But it’s on ample display in Amanda Kim’s new film “Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV,” which shows how Paik forged novel avenues of expression and communication in the televisual era.
Born into privilege in Korea in 1932, during the Japanese occupation, Paik studied unhappily to be a composer in Germany until he was electrified by a bold and divisive John Cage performance in 1957. Over the next 10 years, he was off like a rocket: staging outré musical performances with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, joining the raucous Fluxus avant-garde collective in New York, building a robot and pioneering the use of TV sets in gallery art.
Paik found many ways to mess with the banal monitors, which were stacked, worn, and, famously, plunked opposite a contemplating Buddha. But an art documentary like Kim’s also questions first principles generally, to underline the beauty and power built into objects around us. Beyond eliciting truly lovely halos of eerie color from video, Paik sought to democratize technology through innovations in video production and live global broadcast. (Paik’s aphoristic writings are read in voice-over by the actor Steven Yeun.)
Despite the interviews with graying contemporaries that bubble up in the stew of imagery, the film’s sense of art history is somewhat blinkered by lack of context. But Paik is undeniable, creating despite lean times (and slowing after a 1996 stroke). His dragging of a violin on a string — shown in a recurring performance — evokes an almost mystical dedication to disruption.
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.