Art In America: Janet Koplos on Shigeko Kubota “My Life with Nam June Paik”

Art In America

By Janet Koplos

Shigeko Kubota at Maya Stendhal Gallery

Shigeko Kubota’s most notorious work was a Fluxus performance in 1965, a year after she arrived in New York from Japan. For Vagina Painting she attached a paintbrush to her underpants, hiked up her dress and repeatedly squatted over an expanse of paper, leaving a network of bloodlike trails behind her as she moved. It was an assertion of femaleness and surely a mocking reference to Pollock. This aggressive gesture, no universally admired by her Fluxus peers, makes her partnership with Nam June Paik seem inevitable, since in a 1962 performance he had dipped his head in ink and drawn a line down a length of paper with his sopping hair.

They became a couple as well as pioneers of video. This show, with its straightforward title “My Life with Nam June Paik,” presented 10 projections and video objects dated from 1992 to 2007. While not all the works focused on Paik, who died in 2006 and had suffered a disabling stroke 10 years earlier, the memorial quality of the show was particularly poignant because one of her early videos (1972) dealt with the death of her father. According to a 1984 article in this magazine, Paik once said Kubota had “invented death” as a subject matter for video.

The show priojected a chaotic energy as a sentiment jousted with wacky humor. Emotion rather than intellection is the generator of Kubota’s work, and in this autobiographical offering, feeling was direct and immediate. The eponymous My Life with Nam June Paik (2006), shown in niche, is a single-channel video running a leisurely 60 minutes. Savoring the slow passage of lived time, Kubota offers footage of Paik after his stroke, showing him playing piano with his good hand, and combining of nature imagery with angular metal constructions that stand on the floor or are mounted on the wall. In addition, she has constructed humorous crude metal statues. Pissing Boy (1993) is near-life-size robot-like metal figure with monitors in his stomach, heart and head that present altered pictures of Paik at various ages. A big metal-rod penis pints to a bowl with a drain. It was meant to be a fountain but wasn’t working when I was there.

Kubota’s most recent piece, Nam June Paik II (2007), is another constructed figure whose metal-mesh upper body contains several small monitors. He stands on a partial globe with attached cutouts of Asia, the U.S. and Europe; arms outstretched, he holds a Buddhal head in one hand and on the other a violin (Paik smashed one in a performance). The videos show him after the stroke, walking with a helper. These figures recall Paik’s own robotic assemblies of TV sets; in Kubots’s recent works, the intertwined history of the two artists spools out in videotape.