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Japanese video-art pioneer honored at last

Shigeko Kubota blended sculpture and high technology

The poster for the Shigeko Kubota exhibition at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, features a 1972 photo of the artist by Tom Haar. (Original photo in poster © Tom Haar)

OSAKA -- Often, alongside many “great” male artists who have cemented lasting places in modernism’s canon, there stand faithful female partners, without whose support such venerable maestros probably would never have been able to realize some of their most memorable, influential achievements.

It is in this context that the revealing exhibition “Viva Video! The Art and Life of Shigeko Kubota” has rescued its subject, the Japanese-born artist Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), from the long shadow of her husband, Nam June Paik (1932-2006). Like Kubota, Paik, who was born in Korea, immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and made New York his home.

Paik has become widely known as “the father of video art.” However, as “Viva Video!” makes clear, Kubota was equally inventive in her handling of the new medium, which inquisitive art-makers began exploring in the 1960s. Originally presented at the Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art in Nagaoka, in western Japan, the exhibition is now on view, through Sept. 23, at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.

It has been jointly produced by those museums, along with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, where it will open in mid-November. Its co-curators include, respectively, from the museums in Nagaoka, Osaka and Tokyo, Mayumi Hamada, Azusa Hashimoto and Mihoko Nishikawa. Midori Yoshimoto, an art historian who teaches at New Jersey City University in the U.S., also served on the curatorial team.

Shigeko Kubota was born in Makimachi, a town that is now part of Niigata, the capital of Niigata Prefecture. Her father was a schoolteacher and principal, and as Hamada writes in the exhibition’s catalog, Shigeko’s mother, who had studied at the Tokyo College of Music, also “worked as a teacher, making her quite a progressive woman for her time.” (Kawade Shobo Shinsha has published “Viva Video!,” the book, in a Japanese-and-English edition.)

Top: The young Kubota, in 1962, working on a sculpture in one of the archival photos on view in the “Viva Video!” exhibition. (Unidentified photographer; photo courtesy of the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation) Bottom: Kubota performing in Carolee Schneemann’s “Snows” in New York in 1967. (Photo by Alec Sobolewski, loaned to the exhibition by the Carolee Schneemann Foundation)

Kubota transferred schools several times as a child, and during World War II was sent to the home of her father’s parents at a rural Buddhist temple. She cited her maternal grandfather, a student of a traditional, Chinese-inspired painting style, as her greatest artistic influence.

Her aunt, Yoshie Kubota, was an avant-garde dancer who later became known as Chiya Kuni and, in 1947, opened a dance school in Tokyo. The school evolved into a multidisciplinary arts institute, attracting such modernist innovators as the butoh dancer-choreographers Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, and participants in Group Ongaku, an improvisational music ensemble.

One of its members, Mieko Shiomi, became Shigeko Kubota’s friend. In fact, by the early 1960s, Shigeko Kubota, who had studied sculpture at the Tokyo University of Education (a forerunner of today’s University of Tsukuba), was living at her aunt’s arts center. She showed her abstract sculptures in the high-profile “Yomiuri Independent Exhibition.”

With video monitors encased in deep, protruding, boxlike frames, Kubota’s mixed-media “Korean Grave” (1993) emulates the form of a traditional burial mound. (Photo by Edward M. Gomez)

Shigeko Kubota’s first solo outing took place at Tokyo’s Naiqua Gallery in 1963. There, Hamada writes, the young artist filled a room “with scraps of paper intended to resemble ‘love letters,’” placing sculptures “atop mounds covered with sheets” that visitors were obliged to climb. At that time, such mixed-media installations were still unusual. Already, Hamada points out, Kubota was “progressing toward creative endeavors unconfined by the conventional framework of sculpture.”

In the early 1960s, the Hi Red Center collective, Yoko Ono, Paik, and other avant-gardists were active in Tokyo. In 1962, visiting from the U.S., the composer John Cage and the musician David Tudor famously performed Cage’s experimental music at Sogetsu Art Center. Kubota was deeply moved when she heard Paik present his ideas at that Tokyo venue; like Ono, Paik had been active in Fluxus, an international network of artists whose works combined humor and instructional texts calling for audience participation in “scored” events.

Kubota was intrigued by Paik and the Fluxus spirit. In 1964, she and Shiomi headed to New York, where George Maciunas, Fluxus’s eccentric, Lithuanian-born leader, helped them settle in. There, Kubota took part in Ono’s “Beat Piece” and other Fluxus performances. She presented her own performance works, including, most notoriously, “Vagina Painting,” in which she appeared to creep, squatting, across a long sheet of paper with an ink-soaked brush dangling from her crotch. Like Ono, Carolee Schneemann and other female artists of the time, Kubota used her body in that piece as a kind of sculptural object for dramatic, provocative effect.

After separating from her first husband, Kubota began living with Paik, who had been experimenting with video since the mid-1960s. (They married in 1977.) The artists reveled in Sony’s introduction, in 1967, of the Portapak, a video-camera-and-recorder set, which one person could carry. Using analog videotape, the new device revolutionized TV-news production. With it, Paik and Kubota were among the first artists to begin making videotapes they regarded as works of art.

On display in the exhibition: Sony’s Portapak, which was introduced in 1967 and became Kubota and Nam June Paik’s essential tool. (Photo by Edward M. Gomez)

Writing in the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu Techo in 1974, Kubota noted, “I was always interested in the concept and process of art becoming communication, and [in] communication becoming art. Video art realizes this.”

While Paik’s video art felt wildly exuberant and even psychedelic, Kubota’s videos were often diaristic and documentary in character. Like her partner’s, they routinely made use of image-manipulating special effects. While the first half of “Viva Video!” recalls Kubota’s early years as a prototypical performance artist, its latter half examines how she combined an abiding interest in sculpture with her fascination for video’s expressive power.

Kubota pioneered the making of what she called “video sculpture” -- works combining monitors displaying videotapes or closed-circuit video feeds and three-dimensional forms. In “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1975-76) and “Duchampiana: Bicycle Wheel One, Two, Three” (1983), she honored Marcel Duchamp, the high priest of conceptual art, whose ideas she revered; she met the French-born artist in person in 1968, just before he died. In “Three Mountains” (1976-79), Kubota integrated video monitors into large, wooden forms evoking that work’s title and her love of nature, and in “River” (1979-81), she bounced a cacophony of video images off the surface of rippling water in a shiny metal trough.

Top: In “Three Mountains” (1976-79), Kubota integrated video monitors into large wooden forms evoking the work’s title and her love of nature. Middle: In her 1983 work “Duchampiana: Bicycle Wheel One, Two, Three,” Kubota paid homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1951 sculpture, “Bicycle Wheel,” now with added, attached video screens. Bottom: Video-screen images reflected in the rippling water of Kubota’s mixed-media sculpture “River” (1979-81). (Photos by Edward M. Gomez)

The New York-based filmmaker Jeffrey Perkins, whose 2018 documentary “George” examines the life of Fluxus leader Maciunas, met Ono, Kubota and other Japanese artists in the early 1960s, when he was a U.S. serviceman stationed in Japan. By email, he recalled, “I first met Shigeko on a train in Tokyo; she was with Hiroko Hiraoka, the wife of the artist On Kawara. In ‘George,’ she speaks about her work and her problem fitting in with the dominant male artists at that time. Later, in the 1970s in New York, she became the first director of video programs at Anthology Film Archives, supporting video artists around the world.”

Kubota once told an interviewer that video art could be seen as “social sculpture.” Ideally, she said, she liked creating her video sculptures for public spaces where “people [are] walking through.”

The “Viva Video!” catalog is filled with vivid recollections of Kubota’s dedication to her work -- many of her projects began with detailed drawings -- and of her personality. With a generous spirit -- and sometimes a fiery temper -- she was devoted to her friends and to Paik, whom she cared for after he suffered a stroke in 1996.

Following his death, she became the custodian of his legacy, but after her own passing in 2015, the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation was established. Like this scholarly exhibition, which features many materials from the foundation, it honors an artist whose originality and vision have earned her a secure place in modern art’s stubborn old boys’ club.

Edward M. Gomez is a Tokyo-based art historian, arts journalist and critic specializing in Japan.

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