“Video is Vengeance of Vagina”: Shigeko Kubota’s Trailblazing Video Sculptures

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A photo of Shigeko Kubota, an East Asian woman, holding a vintage video camera. The image appears silkscreened in blue, yellow, and red.

Poster for “Viva Video!: The Art and Lifetime of Shigeko Kubota” at Niigata Prefectural Museum of Art; The National Museum of Art, Osaka; and the Museum of Up to the moment Art, Tokyo.

In 1965 and while in her mid-twenties, Shigeko Kubota performed her most correctly-known work, Vagina Painting. Sooner than a neighborhood of ten or so artists eager with the Fluxus journey in downtown New York, she tied a paintbrush dipped in crimson to her undies so as that it perceived to arrive assist from within her, then dragged it round a canvas on the ground by transferring her hips. The work, which lives on in photos taken by Fluxus artist George Maciunas, has been praised by moderately just a few feminist art historians in the a protracted time since for radically subverting damaged-down, patriarchal roles: man as artist, lady as nude muse. Art historian Kristine Stiles described the work in 1993 as “essentially the most aggressively proto-feminist performance of Fluxus” because it challenges the longstanding belief of women folk as passive objects via art. Others read it as a fierce rebuttal of Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry” works (begun 1960), for which he dipped women folk’s our bodies in his signature colour of blue and dragged them all the scheme in which via canvases, objectifying them literally.

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Kubota never performed this create of body art ever all over again, even supposing. Truly, in an oral historical past interview completed for MoMA’s C-MAP world research mission rapidly sooner than her death in 2015, she recalled that she used to be “begged to create” the fragment by two male artists—Maciunas and Nam June Paik, whom she later married. With this in mind, feminist interpretations of the fragment turn into less convincing.

For the relaxation of her profession, Kubota essentially worked in a varied medium: video sculpture, alongside with her focal point largely on landscapes. She carved her beget visual language for pondering the correctly-trodden form of the sublime. Infrequently, she also devoted works to her art historical heroes—including her husband. These works stay less recognized than Vagina Painting, even supposing that all also can commerce with the artist’s upcoming peep on the Museum of New Art in New York, which opens August 21 and entails mighty of the lengthy-neglected work she made in the a protracted time that followed her correctly-known 1965 performance. In the intervening time, a Kubota retrospective is traveling in Japan via February 2022, with a disappear in her dwelling of birth of Niigata sooner than showings in Osaka and Tokyo.

Kubota, Shigeko

Shigeko Kubota: Vagina Painting, July 4, 1965.
Photo George Maciunas. Courtesy the Museum of New Art, New York and the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, New York. © Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Kubota’s exhibition historical past has been scant till now. In 1978, she had a two-individual prove on the Whitney Museum of American Art with Takahiko Iimura, one other Jap-American video artist. In 1991, a peep of her work used to be displayed on the American Museum of the Shifting Picture in Queens. The catalogue for that prove included some of her writing—infrequently, she’d demonstrate poems alongside her video sculptures—replete with the iconic line that sums up the arc of her profession: “Video is vengeance of vagina.”

She used to be integral to the New York art scene of the latter half of of the 20th century. From 1974–82, she worked as the video art curator on the Anthology Movie Archives, and her Mercer boulevard neighbors included Joan Jonas, Alison Knowles, and Donald Judd. From 1967–69, she used to be married to the experimental composer David Behrman, and in 1977, she wedded Paik. Maciunas, who helped formalize the Fluxus journey, foresaw her central role when he implored her to switch to the US. He therefore named her vp of the Fluxus journey upon her arrival. It used to be an acknowledgment of the administrative work she did for the avant-garde and anti-elitist journey. Maciunas’s letter arrived on the heels of the disappointing reception she received following her most efficient prove in Tokyo. At that time, as she wrote in 2007, she felt “that female artists also can now not turn into recognized in Japan.” Though arguably, her recognition in the US has been eclipsed by that of the males she supported.

The 1969 exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium,” placed on in New York by Howard Clever on the gallery he ran sooner than founding Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), had a profound influence on Kubota. The prove introduced collectively early experiments, and helped prove to artists and critics that televisual abilities may be venerable creatively sooner than the medium used to be extensively accredited as an inventive one. Kubota’s six-page overview for the Jap art journal Bijutsu Techo helped spread the phrase about video art all the scheme in which via the globe. The next one year, while educating at CalArts, she finished her first experiment in video—a glitchy, colorized, shut-up self-portrait made using a synthesizer engineered by Paik and with Shuya Abe, a Jap electrician, both of whom also led courses on the correctly-known art college. A version of the footage used to be venerable in Video Poem (1970–75), where it used to be performed on a be aware within a nylon gain that used to be left unzipped, revealing her face onscreen. Video Poem used to be confirmed alongside memorable pieces by Bruce Nauman, Howardena Pindell, and Walter De Maria in “Rooms,” the prove that inaugurated MoMA PS1 (then the P.S. 1 Up to the moment Art Heart) in 1976.

Kubota began making video sculptures like Video Poem in allotment because she desired to complicate the premise that video art is “fragile, superficial, temporal, instant.” She belief onerous about how the medium worked—and didn’t work—in the context of the white cube. Within a gallery dwelling, she realized, video required presentation strategies that differed from these general in the more damaged-down black box. She hoped that by holding up displays with varied supplies, she also can assist divorce them from their everyday connotations, which used to be critical because, like many early video artists, she believed TV used to be continuously watched mindlessly.

Recently, works like Kubota’s are more likely to be termed “video installations” slightly than video sculptures. In some unspecified time in the future of her lifetime, Kubota raised concerns about the latter term. She used to be stupefied that “installation”—now not but a longtime fragment of jargon in an art context—is also at a loss for phrases with the German phrase installateur, that ability “plumber” (Germany used to be a necessary video art hub). Paik’s video sculptures are now higher-recognized, nonetheless Kubota claimed she more or less got here up with the model. “In the muse Paik most efficient venerable the tv dwelling, trusty like that, bare with out the relaxation. Then I advised him that a tv by itself is now not work,” she advised an interviewer in 2008. “It could probably be learned in any retailer he wished to add something. He didn’t retract heed to me, so I obvious to create it myself.”

Four monitors incased in plywood. They all show the same footage of a figure standing in a dark space.

Shigeko Kubota: Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase, 1976, video and Gargantuan 8mm film, four cathode-ray tube displays, and plywood, 5 minutes 21 seconds, 66¼ by 31 by 67 inches.
Photo John Wronn. Courtesy the Museum of New Art, New York. © Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Kubota’s first necessary body of video sculptures used to be dedicated to the artist Marcel Duchamp. In 1968, the 2 artists met on a airplane—both were traveling to Rochester for the hole evening of Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time. Duchamp died that very same one year. Starstruck and mourning, Kubota began her “Duchampiana” series in 1972 with Duchampiana: Marcel Duchamp’s Grave (1972–75). In the work, footage of his tombstone—inscribed with the epitaph D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent (Besides, it’s continuously the others who die)—is repeated all the scheme in which via twelve nine-disappear displays. The diminutive displays are stacked vertically in a plywood sheath, flanked by two mirrors that extend in opposition to the viewer. Kubota’s obsession with death—per chance influenced by her grandfather, a Buddhist monk who participated in quite quite a bit of funerals—persisted all the scheme in which via her profession. In the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition, art historian Gloria Sutton posits that per chance this obsession with futility drove her hobby in glitchy video, as she desired to focus on the medium’s impermanence.

In varied “Duchampiana” works, Kubota borrows some of Duchamp’s correctly-known compositions. In 1983, she stuck diminutive displays in the spokes of bicycle wheels grew to turn into the other scheme up and perched on top of stools in reference to Duchamp’s assisted readymade Bicycle Wheel (1951). And, she reinterpreted his iconic painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) by lining a plywood staircase with four displays, every exhibiting footage she filmed of a nude lady traipsing down the stairs at Anthology Movie Archives. It’s tempting to read this work as a feminist rejoinder to art historical past’s obsession with the female nude on the heels of Vagina Painting, nonetheless when Kubota spoke about Nude Descending one day of her lifetime, she centered on her earnest reverence for Duchamp—especially his hobby in taking pictures journey over time, an ambition she saw ripe for updating via video. In 1981, Nude Descending a Staircase grew to turn into the principle video sculpture MoMA ever received.

From 1972–73, Kubota used to be allotment of a instant-lived multiracial feminist video art collective called Crimson, White, Yellow, and Dim. The name riffed on the colours of the American flag, and likewise referred to every member’s pores and skin color. Kubota used to be joined by Mary Lucier, Celia Sandoval, and Charlotte Warren, and the neighborhood held two “multimedia live reveals” on the Kitchen in New York. In December 1973, Kubota showed Riverrun—Video Water Poem, which launched one other routine motif in her work—flowing water. Four channels showed rivers and canals she recorded while traveling in Europe, and a fifth performed footage of the Hudson River. In entrance of the displays, a fountain spewed orange soda, and on a sixth channel, there used to be stay footage of viewers ingesting create it. This used to be essentially the most attention-grabbing channel in color. Art historian Midori Yoshimoto claims that Riverrun used to be the “first of its kind” to combine multichannel video with varied supplies.

Three vintage moniors hang from the ceiling and face the floor. They reflect bright colors in a metal trough filled with water. They are in a dark room.

Shigeko Kubota: River, 1979-81, nonetheless color video, three displays, stainless-steel container, mirrors, pump, water.
Photo Peter Harris. Courtesy Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, New York and MIT Checklist Visible Arts Heart, Cambridge, MA.

Kubota returned to water recurrently trying to rating what she called “a full freedom to dissolve,” and several of her works deliver a want to be subsumed by nature. Per chance she used to be now not terrorized of workmanship—or after all now not in the scheme in which that many of her early video art contemporaries were—because her Buddhist upbringing taught her to embody impermanence. She also saw the closed circuit—a necessary factor of analog video—as synonymous with the scheme in which that rivers cycle water.

A matrix of monitors and metal geometric shapes play footage of water. The footage is reflected into a pool of water.

Shigeko Kubota: Niagara Falls, 1985, video sculpture.
Photo Yukihiro Yoshihara. Courtesy Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, New York.

Standouts from this body of labor contain River (1979–81) and Niagara Falls (1985). In River, three displays dangle from the ceiling and face the ground, where the footage is then reflected by a metal trough stuffed with water, lined with damaged mirrors, and replete with a minute motor that creates waves. The brightly colored shapes and footage of the artist swimming turns into abstracted in the reflection, and the bouncing colours create the work something of a proto-projection. Niagara Falls (1985), in the intervening time, is a matrix of minute displays and metal reflected in an oblong pool of water. Kubota once acknowledged that the substantial waterfalls made her in actual fact feel liberated from herself. As a change of taking pictures their largeness with a gigantic shot, she recorded the falls up shut, as if engulfed.

Even the storm that flooded Paik and Kubota’s loft and destroyed several critical tapes most efficient amplified her reverence for water. She honored the match in a video titled SoHo SoAp/Rain Injury (1985), which incorporates one in all her signature poetic strains: “It rains on my heart, it rains on my video art.” (The loft—in a Jonas Mekas–owned constructing on Mercer Boulevard—mute homes the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation.)

The text

Shigeko Kubota: SoHo SoAp/Rain Injury, 1985. video, 8 minutes 25 seconds.
Courtesy the Museum of New Art, New York; Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, New York; and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Kubota devoted mighty of her time and energy to supporting Paik. She has acknowledged that he would use the salary from her job at Anthology Movie Archives on nothing nonetheless displays, and joked they’d so itsy-bitsy left over, they wished to sleep on a TV mattress. In 1972, Paik literalized the premise in a piece called TV Mattress, which curators continuously frame as an homage to Charlotte Moorman. While this may be correct, it’s also an instance of how Paik and Moorman’s collaborations were mighty more viewed than Paik’s and Kubota’s. Paik famously made a TV bra (in 1969) and, later, a TV cello (in 1971) for the correctly-known “topless cellist.” Moorman’s approach to compose in the nude used to be more correctly good with the maker/muse role that Paik sought, and used to be a ability of working that Kubota refused. Moorman’s visibility, just like the reception of Vagina Painting, confirms Lucy Lippard’s argument in a 1976 scenario of A.i.A. that feminist body art—which continuously lives on in photos by males—tended one day of the ’70s to be picked up more eagerly by the art world than did “neutral art by women folk that ignores the sexual identity of its maker.”

In 1996, Paik had a stroke that left him terrorized on the left facet, and Kubota began a decade-lengthy quit from her beget work to beef up him. She helped a debilitated Paik mount his enormous 2000 retrospective on the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The prove solidified his repute as the “father of video art,” making Kubota the medium’s underappreciated mother, in a ability. To complain that the work of a twentieth-century female artist used to be overshadowed by her husband’s is infrequently ravishing—a unhealthy cliché even, as it may per chance per chance presumably supersede discussion of the benefit of that lady’s work—nonetheless that doesn’t create it any less sad.

A robot-like sculpture made out of four TV-like monitors appears skateboarding. The figure is standing on a plinth that has shards of mirrors on it, and colorful lights are projected and refracted around the sculptuer.

Shigeko Kubota: Skater, 1993, video sculpture.
Photo Yukihiro Yoshihara. Courtesy Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, New York.

Kubota knew how of us saw her vis-à-vis Paik. In 2007, a one year after Paik died, she opened “My Lifestyles with Nam June Paik,” one in all her few and closing solo exhibitions, at Stendhal Gallery in New York. The prove featured lighthearted sculptures depicting the couple in robot create displaying footage of their closing years collectively, which they spent in Miami. In a single, she’s jogging with dumbbells, and in one other, Paik is peeing. She complained that a reporter holding the prove asked her why she would use a uncommon platform—a 2d of fleeting attention on her work—to arrive Paik’s legacy slightly than her beget, as if the oversight of her work used to be come what may her fault, and as if caring for or lacking her sick husband or inquisitive about him a muse used to be come what may anti-feminist.

Here all over again, video sculptures were a automotive for mourning. Straight away ephemeral and huge—or as Kubota keep apart it, both frosty and warm—it used to be the final phrase medium for both remembering and letting inch.

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