Nam June Paik's "M200/Video Wall," 1991. (Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, NYC and Estate of Nam June Paik)
A still from "Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV," (2023), a documentary about the visionary Korean American artist directed by Amanda Kim. (Courtesy Amanda Kim and Estate of Nam June Paik )
First-time director Amanda Kim's documentary "Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV" (2023) screens at the MFAH through Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston)
Nam June Paik's "Bakelite Robot," 2002. (Courtesy Estate of Nam June Paik and Tate Modern, London)
Paik and pals, from left: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Shuyo Abe, with whom Paik invented the video synthesizer.
Late Houston photographer Suzanne Paul documented Nam June Paik on the streets of New York in 1983. ((Courtesy Estate of Suzanne Paul and Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston)
Avant-garde Fluxus artist Nam June Paik was a genius way ahead of his time. And we are all living within the futuristic conceptual spaces this innovator envisioned decades ago. Now, director Amanda Kim’s documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (2023) illuminates Paik’s complex journey as an artist. Screening at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through this Sunday, May 21, the documentary reveals processes perfected by the father of video art.
Although Paik created his own lane with numerous video art innovations, the documentary also delves into his work as a composer. He coined the term “electronic superhighway” and, in collaboration with Shuya Abe, invented the video synthesizer. But just as significant within the Korean-born Paik’s body of work is the realm of music.
About 13 seconds into Paik’s “Etude for Pianoforte” (1959-60) composition, listeners hear the opening motif from the “Allegro con brio” section of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. This work functions as one of the earliest forms of sampling.
Yet, in Kim’s documentary — although there are other nods to classical music — it is Paik’s experimental style which is explored in depth. One example shown is his early work with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and David Tudor in pre-Berlin Wall era Germany. Colorful commentary offered by the late Mary Bauermeister, who created works inspired by Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme, is revelatory.
Another aspect of Paik’s maximalist outré style Kim captures well is the irreverent schtick he became known for possessing.
In one Neo-Dadaist sequence, he overturns a piano, boldly cuts John Cage’s neck tie and sets a piano ablaze. And, clearly, Paik infused his later visual arts work with this kind of spirit. In a way, being fearless and forward thinking also helped him endure lean, precarious times.
One absurd moment captures Paik’s wife, Japanese avant-garde artist Shigeko Kubota, talking about the time Paik bought a Buddha statue. It is a funny scenario, which reveals how Kubota was perhaps the more practical partner in the relationship. But in the end, Paik was right. The ubiquitous Buddha figure, paired with television sets, later became a go-to symbol during the height of his career.
Kim’s documentary avoids delving into Paik’s father’s status as chinilpa in Japan-occupied Korea, but shows Paik’s triumphant return to South Korea. Yoko Ono, one of Paik’s closest creative friends, appears briefly.
Towards the end of the documentary, the focus shifts to Paik’s Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) and his unforgettable Jacob’s Ladder-inspired light installation at the Guggenheim Museum, in 2000.
We also witness how Paik’s health declined. Eventually, he ends up in a wheelchair, but keeps working. And even after his death in 2006, Nam June Paik’s work and story still inspires an ever expanding group of acolytes worldwide. In the end, he became a superhero of the art world.
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV screens at the MFAH Lynn Wyatt Theater this weekend, through Sunday, May 21. For a complete list of showtimes and tickets, go here.