By Nicole Demby
Conceived of as one video environment, the landscape created by Shigeko Kubota’s magical video sculptures in the show, My Life With Nam June Paik, at once disorients and transfixes. Using a myriad of materials, Kubota creates a world out of inorganic matter that feels like a natural environment, physically expressing her notion of video as a new frontier of art and reality. In this exhibition, Kubota has created a stimulating atmosphere that depicts massive crystalline mirrors, dynamic metal sculptures, and video screen projections that pulsate colorfully like living organisms. A beautiful musical piece composed by Nam June Paik—renowned video artist and Kubota’s late husband—at a mere thirteen years, lends an important audio component to this ethereal environment.
When Kubota began using video over 30 years ago, the idea that a medium associated solely with science and technology could be accepted as an art form seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, it became evident early on that she was doing something totally original. For Kubota, video has been a means of distending and distorting, even negating time. As a pioneer of the video sculpture genre, Kubota has, throughout her career, been on the cutting edge of video art techniques: integrating television monitors into her sculptures, combining the organic and the inorganic, and exploring notions of a collective consciousness. Kubota’s work has come to expand the philosophical scope of art. Her novel activities became especially important within the context of the feminist art movement of the 1970’s, a time in which past methods of interpreting and valuing art were being challenged. Kubota’s work singularly combines the conceptuality of Fluxus, the formality of traditional sculpture, and the unique ability of video to engage and entrance.
Background and Early Career
Shigeko Kubota was born in Niigata, Japan in 1937. She studied sculpture at the Tokyo University of Education and went on, after a brief period of teaching, to become a mixed media artist in the Tokyo avant-garde scene in the 1960’s. After World War II, the role of art in Japan was beginning to change, becoming increasingly integrated into and influenced by the international art world from which it was previously isolated, due to historical circumstances. Avant-garde movements, such as Gutai and Jikan-ha began exploring new mediums and challenging traditional artistic paradigms. Kubota became involved with Group Ongaku, a collective, who were exploring avant-garde performance, music and visual art. By this time, Japanese artist Yoko Ono, a prominent figure in the New York art scene, had introduced Fluxus and other American avant-garde movements to artists in Japan, during a brief time spent living in Tokyo. Inspired by Ono and Korean artist Nam June Paik, who was also living in Tokyo at this time and who Kubota would become briefly acquainted with, members of Group Ongaku, including Kubota, decided to send proposals for happenings, or performance pieces, they had written to Fluxus pioneer George Maciunas.
Kubota held her first solo-exhibition at the Naiqua Gallery in Shinbashi, Tokyo in 1963. Kubota’s first public work was entitled Make a Floor of Love Letters, and was an installation piece that encouraged members of the audience to engage with a pile of love letters on the floor. After the exhibition failed to receive any critical attention from Japanese media, she came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for her to receive any recognition as an experimental female artist in Japan. This insight would come to influence her decision to leave her homeland and move to New York.
A few months before her first exhibition, Kubota had seen avant-garde composers John Cage perform during a visit to Tokyo in 1962. Kubota felt an instant connection to John Cage and his use of obscuration in his approach to music. She remembers thinking to herself at the time, “If this music is accepted in New York . . . I should be accepted there too.” George Maciunas, who was friends with Ono and interested in other Japanese artists, wrote a Fluxus letter, encouraging Japanese artists to come to the United States. On July 4, 1964, Kubota flew to New York where she was immediately welcomed into a world of Fluxus happenings, publications, and exhibits at galleries.
Shigeko in New York
Kubota met George Maciunas shortly after she moved to New York. Through Maciunas, she also met avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who she would later work with, holding the position of curator at Anthology Film Archives, which Mekas co-founded. Kubota became Maciunas’ close friend and confidante, seeing him often and assisting him with whatever he was working on at the time. She would eventually earn the title “Vice President of Fluxus.”
In 1966, Kubota enrolled in classes at New York University with the intention of obtaining a student visa. Eventually, she too would become an important international link for artists living and working in Japan. She also worked as a corresponding journalist and photographer for a Japanese arts magazine. Later that year, Kubota enrolled in the New School for Social Research where she met experimental musician David Behrman, to whom she was briefly married.
Kubota’s own Fluxus work from that time exemplifies her remarkable wit, and the subtle yet powerful way in which she conveys her ideas. Her first Fluxus object, Flux Napkins (1965), a series of paper napkins with cut out facial features, which were used at Fluxus dinner parties and later advertised in Fluxus publications. When George Maciunas, who was always taking various medications, fell ill, Kubota made him Flux Pills (1966), hoping to cure him. Maciunas was delighted.
On July 4, 1965, at the Summer Perpetual Fluxus Festival, Kubota staged a performance piece of her own; entitling the work Vagina Painting, Kubota affixed a paintbrush between her legs and made markings with red paint, on white paper which had been placed flat on the stage. The Fluxus performance marked the one-year anniversary of Kubota’s arrival in the US. Vagina Painting proved to be an important piece, signifying Kubota’s independence as a woman and artist, outside the strict creative confines of her native Japan.
Emerge: Shigeko Kubota Video Art
It wasn’t until the late sixties, with the introduction of the Sony Portapak, the first truly portable video recorder, that Kubota’s unique style began to emerge as something distinct from the Fluxus movement. Marcel Duchamp, Dadaist and progenitor of the Fluxus movement, inspired much of this early solo work. In 1967, Kubota visited and was inspired by a Duchamp installation at the Stockholm Museum in Sweden. The following year, she met him, serendipitously, when the airplane they were both taking to Buffalo, New York, to attend the opening of Merce Cunningham’s “Walkaround Time”, was rerouted to Rochester because of a storm. Duchamp died later that year.
In 1972, Portapak in tow, Kubota took a trip to Normandy to visit the site of his grave. The experience inspired her to make her first video sculpture, a groundbreaking work entitled Video Chess (completed in 1975). Duchamp’s tombstone, which Kubota describes as a cube coming out of the ground influenced her the formation of Video Chess. Video Chess was the first of several video sculptures that pay overt homage to the modern master.
Fluxus’ supportive, creative environment allowed Kubota to fully explore her artistic curiosities. Fluxus also brought her in contact with one of the group’s core members, Nam June Paik. Kubota and Paik’s growing closeness would eventually surmount to their marriage in 1977. The early seventies were financially difficult for the pair, who Kubota describes as a “Fluxus couple.” Paik’s work was gaining more esteem abroad than in the United States. Kubota finally received significant public recognition with Nude Descending a Staircase (1976), a video sculptural interpretation of Duchamp’s painting from 1912. This work would come to create a new audience for video. Nude Descending a Staircase was the first video sculpture ever acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection.
When discussing her early life with Paik, Kubota talks about their relationship as something natural and inevitable, “We were yin and yang, input and output. It’s magnetic,” she has said. When she showed her work, Europe On 1/2-Inch A Day, a video travel diary, at the First Women Video Festival at The Kitchen in New York in 1972, Paik readily offered his support. This would become the standard for Paik and Kubota’s long-standing relationship – one lending support to the other in each of their artistic endeavors. Consequently, Kubota and Paik each developed a unique and personal style, in the new medium of video art. The two are largely credited with video art’s acceptance as a legitimate art form.
In her later work, Kubota began to use nature as a direct inspiration for her video sculptures, blurring and redefining the distinction between the natural and the technological. Rock Video: Cherry Blossom (1981) draws on the Zen aesthetic of Kubota’s homeland, displaying images of cherry blossoms that have been digitized and colorized through video. Kubota visually layers, and eventually abstracts her subject matter completely. In some of these works, water is used as a reflective surface for projecting and distorting video images.
My Life With Nam June Paik
Kubota’s remarkable career has redefined art: how it is to be conceived, interpreted, and exhibited. The show, while highlighting the refinement and evolution of a lifetime artist, also medializes both the personal and the sacred, inviting viewers into a dreamlike world, one that is drenched in spiritual possibility and yet maintaining an ethic that is very real and grounded.
The artist chose the works displayed in My Life With Nam June Paik because they tell the special story of Shigeko Kubota and her husband. Together, the two would make video a legitimate art form, expanding their work through their relationship and the relationship through their work. Paik is sensed, omnipresent, in Kubota’s latest exhibit, her first since her husband’s death.
Paik’s life is celebrated with two new, larger than life video sculptures. Nam June Paik I (2007) is composed of metal piping that abstractly suggests a human figure sitting on a metal mesh, orb-like base. The figure comes to life as recent footage of Kubota and Paik in Miami plays on monitors that have been stationed at the head, torso, hands, and knees. This footage, shot intimately by Paik’s nurse, after his stroke in 1996, captures the couple in Paik’s later years, while music he composed as a thirteen year-old boy emanates in the background.
Nam June Paik II (2007) features an extraordinary figure wearing suspenders and a belt, indicators of Paik’s eccentric personality. Arms outstretched, the figure holds in one hand a violin, the instrument Paik smashed in his memorable performance, One for Violin Solo, in the other lies a Buddha head, an object which references his well-known work, TV-Buddha. While Nam June Paik I celebrates Paik’s later years by displaying footage of an elderly couple relaxing together on a park bench, the sequel piece evokes an image of Paik as a strong and successful young artist in the height of his career. The sculptures chronologically balance one another, presenting a rich physical and emotional landscape that draws upon Paik’s many roles in Kubota’s life.
Jogging Lady (1993) focuses on the female form. Kubota’s strong belief that exercise and health-giving activities are ways for women to empower themselves resonates in this work. Footage of women running marathons plays on monitors, placed in a metal sculpture of a woman, distributed throughout her stomach, breasts, and mouth. The same footage is projected onto large surrounding walls in bold, eye-catching colors. The piece is refreshing and energizing, offering a youthful and feminine side of Kubota’s work.
Offered as Jogging Lady’s male counterpart, Pissing Boy (1993) radiates Paik’s unique humor and charisma. Full of wit and playfulness, the robot-like figure made of tin urinates into a bucket, while Paik’s image comes to life on a monitor inside the head, a helmet that connotes a space traveler.
The other sculptures in My Life With Nam June Paik both directly and indirectly address Paik and the unique relationship Kubota shared with him. Kubota has said that the earlier works, Bird I (1991) and Bird II (1992) are about “freedom from desire”. The kaleidoscopic videos of various bird species convey the freedom to be unconstrained by gravity, to move freely, outside the normal everyday constraints of the body. Both pieces knock viewers off-balance, creating a dizzying effect in their bodies and minds.
Korean Grave (1993) evokes a spiritual dome that echoes a traditional Korean burial structure. The piece reveals video clips of footage, visible in monitors that poke out from a mysterious looking metal dome, from the couple’s 1984 trip to Paik’s homeland. The images displayed are collectible in the viewers’ minds, like the remnants of an artificial grave; acting like portals to another realm. Surrounded by colored mirrors, the video’s reflections create a dazzling, prismatic effect, encircling the body of the viewer into a bold, visual expression. Representing artifacts of personal history and transcendence, this piece evokes traditional, sacred ceremony and performs the difficult task of finding a place for it in our fast-paced, modern world.
Created from discarded bolts, screws, nails, and scrap metal, Tree I and Tree II (both 1993) mark a powerful contrast between objects in nature and those that are human-made. The sculpture depicts a tree whose branches have become resting places for video monitors. The monitors present lively images of colorful mosaics of flowers that burst into the viewer’s attention creating a 3-D, kaleidoscopic effect.
The works exhibited in My Life With Nam June Paik stand up individually as well as working integrally with one another, creating a visual timeline of two incredible lives.
In the span of her long career, Kubota has had many solo exhibitions around the world and participated in numerous collective shows. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Toyama Museum of Art and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. She was a video artist-in-residence at both Brown University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has taught at the School of Visual Arts. In 1996, the Whitney held a one-person show of her artwork. Kubota is also the recipient of numerous honors and grants including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Maya Deren Award from the American Film Institute, and repeated fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. She was also awarded the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst Fellowship in Berlin, the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and the NEA/Visual Arts Grant.
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