Video art has changed a lot since Korean-born US artist Nam June Paik first picked up a bulky Sony Portapak in the 1960s and pioneered the genre; today our phones can take broadcast-quality images and transfer files in the blink of an eye. But there’s more to video art than the capabilities of technology.
Korean American director Amanda Kim has spent the last few years putting together a documentary on Paik’s life and work. And from what she’s seen, his message remains as timely and resonant as ever. “When I've been traveling around with the film, it’s been really moving to see how so many young people connect to him,” she says. “That’s been really amazing.”
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is a comprehensive look at the man considered the founder of video art and the Nostradamus of the digital age. Charting Paik’s early years studying classical music in Germany and his shift to avant-garde performance inspired by composer John Cage (who became a firm friend), through to predicting the internet in 1974 and his later chaotic experiments with television images and live broadcasts, the film is a compelling look at an artist who refused to accept the conventional wisdom about the relationship between people and tech.
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While his popularity in the West peaked in the ’60s and ’70s, Paik remains a well-known figure in his native South Korea, where Kim first encountered his art. “Even when I was younger, I would go to museums and with my family, and my mum would point out his work,” she says.
But it wasn’t until years later that a chance encounter with TV Buddha, one of his most popular and enduring works, rekindled her interest. “It’s a Buddha looking at its own image in a closed-circuit camera loop,” she says. “It felt very of this moment, and it made me think about the way in which we are constantly looking at ourselves today, with our smartphones and social media. But it was also very funny, full of humour, while also feeling kind of spiritual – like there are all these contradictory notes held in one piece. I thought it was made yesterday, not by someone born in the ’30s.”
Kim, who was working as a producer at Vice’s TV operation Viceland at the time, started researching Paik further. Despite his pivotal role in the creation of video art, there wasn’t a single documentary about him, and for many outside South Korea he was a mystery. “When I was in the research phase, I was talking to a lot of my friends who were extremely cultured and knew way more about films and whatnot than me, and they hadn’t heard of him. That really inspired me to make this film.”
Driven by a desire to engage with the new technology of video, and inspired by soundscape design, Paik’s art disrupts the idea of being a passive observer of images. Sometimes this led to chaos: his 1984 global satellite television special Good Morning Mr Orwell is well worth tracking down on Youtube, both for its collection of hip ’80s figures and for the way it goes off the rails.
“I think that was something that I really tried to take away from just the whole process,” Kim says. “Making a film, especially a documentary, you have to be really open. Some things don’t happen the way you plan, but you go with it. Accidents are beautiful, that’s something Nam June has taught me.”
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is also a look at the man behind the images. Paik largely kept his personal life under wraps; even for fans of his work, there’s bound to be a few surprises here.
“His background is super interesting, and he was quite private,” Kim says. “A lot of people, even people who knew him really well, told me that they didn’t really know a lot about him. There were so many people I had to interview in order to get the different aspects of him. It felt like this really gigantic puzzle and I was filling it in piece by piece.”
Paik’s work was often reacting to serious issues around him – his greatest successes came at the height of the Cold War – and the idea of questioning technology is central to his approach. But if there’s one insight Kim wants audiences to take away from her film, it’s that his work is always hopeful and optimistic.
“He approached the world and his work with a sense of humour, and I think that is a universal language,” she says. “That’s a really important part of the film and who he was as a person. I tried to bring that to the film, so that hopefully people laugh when they watch and find some joy.”
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV co-presented by ACMI and Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), is screening exclusively in Melbourne at ACMI from September 21 to October 1, with a screening and Q&A via zoom with Amanda Kim on September 23. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the ACMI website.
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