Words by Dan Schindel
Often called the “Father of Video Art,” Nam June Paik was an impressively global 20th Century artist. He was born and raised in Seoul amid the Japanese occupation, matriculated at a university in Tokyo after the war, studied music in West Germany not long before the Berlin Wall would go up, settled in Manhattan during its heyday as a haven for outsider artists from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, and eventually would shuttle between the United States and Korea after decades of exile, helping to elevate its art scene to the world stage. A friend and contemporary of the likes of renowned members of the Fluxus movement like John Cage and Joseph Beuys, Paik is most known now as a pioneer in the field of video art. He was the first creative to imagine consumer-grade video cameras and televisions as more than simple tools, as media for thought-provoking and imaginative artwork.
Paik would find ways to reconfigure how we could look at our mundane communication tools. He’d arrange television sets into massive structures, or turn them into fixtures in a garden, or warp their mechanics to turn visual noise into something eerie and beautiful. He imagined something close to what we now know as the Internet in the 1970s, coining the term “electronic superhighway” in the process. Paik is the subject of the new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV, coming soon to theaters. With a mixture of archival footage of Paik, interviews with his friends and artists inspired by him, and executive producer Steven Yeun reading narration from his writings, the film creates a portrait of his life and work. I sat down with director Amanda Kim over Zoom to discuss the film and some of her favorite Paik pieces.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Daniel Schindel: Can you recall when you first encountered Paik, or what work of his first really struck you?
Amanda Kim: I knew of him because he’s a Korean cultural hero, and I’m Korean. My parents told me about him, and I would see some of his pieces at museums. But I think the earliest notable encounter was when I came across a TV Buddha about five or so years ago, right near when I started this film. I remember feeling, “Oh, that could have been made today.” It’s really funny and comedic and kind of scary, because this Buddha is looking at its own image in an endless closed circuit. There was something both dark and light about it, these contradictory ideas all living in one piece. It felt so fresh and contemporary. This was in Korea; I don’t remember which version of the work it was. He made hundreds of variations, so a lot of institutions each have one.
I started looking into Nam June further after that. Then, years later, I was at Storm King in Upstate New York, and he has a piece there [Waiting for UFO] with a Buddha watching an empty TV frame. There was no plaque or anything, but I told my partner, “That’s a Nam June piece.” I could tell. And then, all of a sudden, I got a call from my producer. We had been trying to get ahold of Paik’s estate for two years by that point. And that was when I was told we finally were in contact. That felt magical. That TV Buddha led me here.
DS: In your film, Paik’s friend Mary Bauermeister describes TV Buddha as “Infinity looking at emptiness.” I thought that was a great encapsulation. He came up with it at the midpoint of his career, after he had been struggling for many years. The work itself is so simple—a statue, a TV, and a camera—but there’s so much thematic complexity. It’s the kind of simple concept an artist could only arrive at after thinking through and working on these matters for a long time.
AK: I think that’s the beauty of that piece, is that it seems so obvious, and you think, “How?” Izhar Patkin told me something wonderful, which I wish could have made it into film—along with a hundred other things I had to cut for time. He said, “It’s so iconic that you don’t remember a time not having seen it.”
DS: What’s another good or important introductory Paik work that you would recommend for those not familiar with him?
AK: I would say his satellite piece, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, because of what it stands for. The content itself is really wild, especially if you think about how it was released on TV in 1984. And there’s what he was responding to as well. He’s taking this idea of “Big Brother” and flipping it on its head, having all these artistic icons playing around on public television and broadcasting it all around the world live. I just think it’s brilliant. A lot of people see it now and ask, “Why is this even interesting? It’s kind of messy. It’s janky. It’s weird.” But if you understand the historical context and who these people are and what Nam June accomplished, it’s really impressive and inspiring. It goes beyond the art world, which was his intention—the accessibility of information and art.
DS: Much of his work presages a lot of contemporary communication and culture, especially social media. It feels like a series of Vines, or a Twitter feed, or a TikTok collab, but decades before we had the proper vocabulary for what they’re doing.
AK: And again, there are so many different versions. Nam June never thought a work was finished. He understood that the work would change with the times. So he also re-edited old pieces constantly, and they’d become new again for the next generation, staying fresh with the times that he was working in. He’ll cut a clip of Laurie Anderson from Good Morning, Mr. Orwell into another piece called Butterfly. This constant re-cutting of his work, of giving it new meaning depending on the broader context and the way they're presented—to me, that’s like how memes work.
DS: He was doing that with video in art before we were all doing it all the time.
AK: I also love his collaborations with Charlotte Moorman. I think she’s such a wonderful person, character, and was so crucial to Nam June’s work. I think what they were doing, even just the combining of sex and music, confounded me at first. I love how Mary describes it; it’s about breaking taboos. If there was one thread to everything Nam June did, it was challenging convention. They did that with works like TV Bra for a Living Sculpture and TV Cello, and they did it with their performances, playing nude. At this year’s Grammy Awards, Mary J. Blige paid tribute to Moorman, she performed alongside people playing TV cellos! I think people are finally catching on, and so the film feels very timely.
DS: I was surprised to learn this is the first feature-length film about Paik, given his importance as an artist. How familiar do you think the average person is with him these days?
AK: I was actually surprised by the mixed reactions I got when I told people I was making this documentary, how many didn’t know him. I assumed anyone working in art and culture would know about him. In Korea, people might not know his work or much more besides his name, but most do at least know his name, because there weren’t many famous Korean artists during that time.
But it was surprising. Even my partner, who's in film, didn’t know him at all. So that was one intention I had for the film, spread his name to people outside the art world. People who took Art History 101 probably studied him. But outside of that, how can I reach young people? Is there a way to make his work relatable and accessible, and not turn anyone off with how avant-garde he is?
DS: How did Steven Yeun join the project?
He’s a fan of Nam June’s work. He came through Kenzo Digital, who manage Paik’s estate. He was interested in it firstly as a fan. We had a lot of Zoom conversations where we would endlessly talk about what I was thinking for the direction for this film. I think he related to the story, and how Nam June was a complex hybrid human, hard to define, and like me, he wanted to make sure we didn’t put him in a neat box. It’s easy for Asian American identity to be categorized strictly as one thing. But Nam June defies all expectations and constantly challenges your assumptions. I think I related to that as an itinerant person living all over the world and feeling like my identity is way more complex than just one. And same with Steven. So I thought he would be perfect to narrate.
Published on March 22, 2023