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  • Nam June Paik: Lessons from the Video Master (2007)
  • Wheeler Winston Dixon
Nam June Paik: Lessons from the Video Master (2007), Directed by Skip Blumberg, Distributed by New Yorker Films,, 93 minutes

This 2007 documentary of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik’s memorial service at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in New York City is a simple piece, but it is one that is deeply felt. Paik, arguably the first video artist to fully embrace the possibilities of the video medium, worked with numerous people throughout his long career, and seemingly every one of them turned up for the service, which offers director Skip Blumberg a chance to gather all of Paik’s collaborators in one place for a sensitive meditation on his life and work. For all of this contemplation, though, the video is constructed in a cheerfully informal manner, much like a home movie, albeit one with an all-star cast.

Blumberg arrives at the memorial service at the last minute and watches, with his camera, from the sidelines. But his main project is to buttonhole as many people in attendance as possible and ask them one question: “what did you learn from Nam June Paik?” The responses are gracious and heartfelt; Merce Cunningham, in a wheelchair, notes that Paik taught him “about fun,” while Yoko Ono responds that Paik’s best example for her was simply “being him[self ]”. Experimental filmmaker Carolee Schneemann recalls Paik’s sense of “risk, audacity, and fun,” while video artist Bill Viola gives Paik a very generous career assessment: Paik was “the master.”

For most of Nam June Paik: Lessons from the Video Master, Blumberg’s footage is simply reportage of the memorial service itself, although it has been extensively manipulated in post production—run at various speeds, colorized, and fed through electronic distortion filters for a variety of effects. As the memorial footage speeds by, Blumberg increases the sensory overload by presenting, as a frame within the larger frame, excerpts from other videos in which Paik was involved, either as the primary author or a collaborator. As the service breaks up, the action moves to a more formal memorial for Paik at the Guggenheim Museum, featuring a special performance by Yoko Ono in memory of her friend. Paik and Ono both came to New York City in the 1960s and labored on the margins of the art world to create some of their most influential and lasting works during the early part of their respective careers.

Thus, it is fitting that Ono’s brief ceremonial remembrance, during which the smashed fragments of a large blue vase are unveiled before the assembled audience and then are distributed to them, is both evocative and ephemeral. Taking the stage in a blue robe, Ono sits quietly in a chair, offering a brief prayer for her departed friend and noting that “the vase was broken to feed the soul. It has become 450 pieces. Please take one [piece] each home, and in ten years, let’s promise, that in Spring 2016 we will think of Nam June again.” Then, in her native language, Ono calls upon the “North, South, East and West…gods everywhere…please pray for Nam June Paik’s spirit.” The audience members then take one shard of the shattered vase from the improvised stage and quietly depart, effectively ending the ceremony. Ono’s appearance in the video is perhaps the high point of the work, as she remembers her shared past with her colleague, honors him, and also acknowledges the passing of time, and the inevitability of death.

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Paik’s work, playful and evocative, is in museum collections around the world. Part showman, part artist, part entrepreneur (Paik advised Bill Viola—after seeing “He Weeps for You,” one of Viola’s video installations—to make “a red one for Europe, a blue one for America, a green one for Asia, [then] sell it three times, and make three times the amount of money”), Paik is the acknowledged world pioneer in video art. This touching and sensitive video is a fitting testament to his work, his world, and the friends...


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