Nam June Paik’s Lifetime of Alienation
“Every day for me is a communication problem,” admits Nam June Paik in the first sequences of the new biographical documentary, Moon is the Oldest TV. One wouldn’t expect this to be uttered by one of the most celebrated and recognizable modern artists of all time. After all, Paik’s work still grips the hearts and minds of many who easily identify with its struggle against humanity’s looming cyborgian fate. But it’s precisely this kind of sensitivity that first-time feature director Amanda Kim lends to the famed daddy of video art—to see Paik not only for his artistic acclaim but as an immigrant and political dissident. By framing his life within his experiences as a social alien, the themes of alienation in his work are brought into sharper focus.
Kim cast Korean American actor Steven Yeun as the narrator for Paik’s personal writings. And although Yeun’s lulling articulations differ quite strongly from the artist’s heavy accent, the decision is made not necessarily to replicate reality anyway but rather to place Paik firmly within a lineage of Korean American, if not Asian American or Asian diasporic, creatives. Yeun, reading Paik’s words, describes risking arrest as a child growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea to speak Korean at home when it was outlawed. The screen flickers with black-and-white photographs from the era—brutalized bodies and horrific scenes—capturing the difficulty of remembering a regime so cruel, of looking back with casual clarity.
While growing up in Seoul, Paik identified with the Marxist Communist movement, and eventually fled the Korean War with his family to train as a classical pianist at the University of Tokyo. Repression and war continues to haunt Paik while studying abroad in Munich, where the 24-year-old aspiring composer remarks on its cold winters. So it feels like a breakthrough when he discovers the musical theory of John Cage, a controversial figure at the time who was introducing Zen Buddhist concepts and “Oriental heritage” in his own work. From there, Paik becomes inspired to stage more provocative performances that include bludgeoning the piano, the central instrument that governs his life. The dissonant notes, resulting from mallets hitting multiple strings at once, sound like a vein being strummed near a broken heart. Some might locate it within the Fluxus movement ethos to shed the heaviness of bourgeois artmaking; I hear also the violence of letting go.
But if the artist is the exemplary sufferer, as Susan Sontag said, then suffer Paik did. Paik’s exhibitions are repeatedly mocked, repeatedly panned, and the skepticism seems to follow him from Germany to New York, where fellow artists like Cage and Jonas Mekas help sponsor his visa. After staging a performance with Juilliard-trained musician Charlotte Moorman in which she played the cello nude, he was arrested and shamed in South Korean media as creating “sex music.” At one point, while living on the top floor of a Soho apartment with his wife and fellow artist Shigeko Kubota, a heavy rain and leaking roof threaten to erase their entire life’s work.
We watch him trudge through city streets with a violin tied to his cuffed hands and dragging behind him, as if performing public penance that no one asked for. At an emotional climax, Paik visits his parents’ graves during a visit to South Korea, having never attended their funerals. What is the result of decades of unspoken grief? The camera changes to the result: Mother and Father robot sculptures. Vengeance is in the work, and the work’s message is love.
But beyond the incessant self-effacement that typifies Western image of the lone genius, Paik’s sisyphean journey also includes racial struggle. As Paik mourns being a “yellow gypsy” still living in poverty in his 40s, Kim helps contextualize the time period he lived in as extremely racist, with developing technologies like the TV rife with negative Asian stereotypes and Orientalist depictions. One of the interviewees complains about not being able to understand Paik’s speech. As performance studies scholar Takeo Rivera posits, “to become an Asian American man is through the theater of sadomasochism.”
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call Paik a racial activist, however, despite his image becoming important for newer generations of aspiring Asian and Asian diasporic artists. Precisely why or what he models remains an open question. Was it leftist Paik, who refused to heed the desires of his wealthy parents? Was it his entry into the pearly white gates of the Western institution? Does his eventual success justify the destitution that we have normalized for artists making a life in the United States?
Paik would have embraced his image now as the flow of chance, quite unfamiliar to newer generations born in a world governed by algorithms and predictive technology. As the credits roll, a bonus clip reveals that the film’s title was chosen in a similar randomized fashion. At the suggestion of Marina Abramovic, three options are entered into the running, from which Kim selects the winner: “Moon is the Oldest TV” is the lucky draw.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV opens on March 24, 2023, at Film Forum.