Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 9, 2022
Shigeko Kubota, Mayumi Hamada, Mihoko Nishikawa, Azusa Hashimoto, and Midori Yoshimoto Viva Video! Art and Life of Shigeko Kubota Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2021. 256 pp.; 131 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Paper ¥3410.00 (9784309291413)
Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, March 20–June 6, 2021; National Museum of Art, Osaka, June 29–September 23, 2021; Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, November 13, 2021–February 23, 2022

The exhibition Viva Video! The Art and Life of Shigeko Kubota was the first large-scale survey exhibition since Kubota’s career survey at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, in 1991, and this catalog—recipient of the 2021 Ringa Art Encouragement Prize—attests to the extent that interest and research on her work has progressed.

The reevaluation of women artists has been proceeding apace throughout the world. Designated the “mother of video art,” Shigeko Kubota has been a particular subject of reconsideration and was recently honored with an important focused exhibition Shigeko Kubota: Liquid Reality at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 2021. One reason for the delay in reviving Kubota’s reputation was that she was overshadowed by her well-known husband, video artist Nam June Paik. Until recently, the principal research sources concerning Kubota have been a few scholarly studies, notably My Love, Nam June Paik (Shigeko Kubota and Nam Jeongho, 2013)—a biography culled from interviews with Kubota—and a chapter in Midori Yoshimoto’s Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (2005). The fact that she was a woman and a member of a racial minority may have also impacted a lack of critical assessment of her work. She was caught between the male-oriented art world of Japan and the predominance of white artists in New York’s scene. Furthermore, discussion of the issues that video art raised for the history of contemporary art and the connection between video and women creators was late in coming, and these are critical concerns when reevaluating Kubota’s work. Fortunately, the exhibition and catalog fill in the historical gaps and reveals for the first time a complete picture of Shigeko Kubota, from her beginnings in the art world of postwar to her life in New York City.

One of the most exciting features of the book is an exhaustive overview of Kubota’s works with comments based on feminist analysis and new knowledge of video art. This 137-page section of plates and descriptions presents the background of Kubota’s performances, works, production notes, installation views, and posters as well as elucidating their significance to other artists (the exhibition included previously unseen materials that convey the wide range of Kubota’s activities and her contributions to art, including the images of the sculptural works showcased in her first exhibition in 1963, or the photo documentation of her participation in Carolee Schneemann’s performance Snows in 1967). Interviews with Kubota and with artists and curators who had personal knowledge of her and her works are interspersed among the plates. They include artist and composer Mieko Shiomi, who is familiar with the activities of Japanese women artists in New York; the late Jonas Mekas, who was knowledgeable about—and a vital part of—the video art scene in New York; and Barbara London, a curator who supported Kubota and produced some of her exhibitions. The plates and interviews are followed by essays from the exhibition’s curators: Azusa Hashimoto, Mayumi Hamada, Mihoko Nishikawa, and Midori Yoshimoto. Newly conducted research by each curator adds multiple layers to the interpretation of Kubota’s work.

Born in Niigata prefecture, Kubota showed artistic talent from a young age. When she was only seventeen one of her paintings was selected for a salon-style exhibition held by the Nika art association at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Mayumi Harada reveals previously unknown facts in her detailed account of Kubota’s life from her emergence as an artist to her activities on arriving in the United States. Fortunate to have relatives involved in creative activities, Kubota chose to take up sculpture as her life’s work. However, as Harada’s research reveals, it was extremely difficult for a young woman sculptor to gain recognition in the postwar Japanese avant-garde—Kubota managed to have her first show at renowned avant-garde Naiqua Gallery in Tokyo only to receive zero reviews. Disappointed with the Japanese art world, she turned her attention to New York. Learning of Fluxus’s activities through Yoko Ono and sending event scores to George Maciunas, Kubota quickly became associated with the avant-garde in New York. After moving to the United States, Vagina Painting (1965)—a performance in which she painted using a paintbrush protruding from her crotch—was seen as her major work and was considered sensational and scandalous. Documents discovered by Harada show Kubota’s careful advance preparation of the performance and overturn the conventional belief that this famous performance was Paik’s brainchild. During the same period, she also attracted attention for joint performances with Carolee Schneemann and collaborative projects with the Sonic Arts Union and other New York artists. With those ventures she emerged as an artist rooted in the New York community.

Kubota was both an innovative artist and an energetic curator. The book makes it clear that Kubota was one of the driving forces behind the trend to innovate and elevate video into an art form. She encountered video in the 1970s through Paik’s works, and soon acquired a Sony Portapak, beginning her activities as a video artist and involving herself in varied and significant projects. One of her great curatorial achievements was introducing video art internationally. On returning to Japan in 1973, she presented the works of New York artists in an exhibition titled Tokyo, New York: Video Express. In January 1974, she gave a report about Japanese video art at Open Circuits: An International Conference on the Future of Television, at MoMA, thus promoting exchanges of video art between the two countries. The same year, she became video curator for the Anthology Film Archives, a position she held until 1982, making major contributions to video art. Mihoko Nishikawa’s research shows that Kubota not only promoted video art but also criticized conventional genres of modern art like sculpture, which she characterized as authoritarian and traditional (and therefore masculine), and by combining moving image and sculpture, which Kubota coined “video sculpture.” By combining highly flexible video images with rigid, sculpture-like entities, she transformed the inelasticity of sculpture, giving physical presence to intangible video images. In works such as Three Mountains (1979) she used a landscape of the American Southwest and mirrors affixed to the interior, “reflecting brilliant light reminiscent of the sun in the desert.” As Nishikawa explains, Kubota’s “video sculpture” gives a physical presence to intangible video, and it is to be understood as changing the encounter between the image and the viewer into something spatial, which appeals to the senses and lures the viewer’s intellect into a more complex dimension. Nishikawa stresses Kubota’s style that turns the entire space into a work of art started when she had the first solo show at Naiqua Gallery, Tokyo.

The book also honors Kubota’s feminist achievements. One of her major works, the Duchampiana series, is clearly a critical response from a woman to the modern art that started with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). From 1970 to 1975, coinciding with the rise of the women’s liberation movement, she presented Video Poem, created as a self-portrait. Starting from the famous aphorism she coined at that time, “video is vengeance of the vagina,” she hinted that video could be read as signifying resistance to the masculine concept of “taking” or “shooting” women’s representation. Midori Yoshimoto points out that many female artists participated in early festivals of video art, and even in the early 1970s Kubota provided guidance for these women in their productions and exhibitions. For example, Kubota submitted works to a women’s video festival and the legendary venue The Kitchen, and this festival was held again when she worked as the video curator at Anthology Film Archives. In the catalog, Yoshimoto also focuses on Red, Yellow, Black, and White (1972), an aspirational feminist program composed of a racially diverse group of women, including Kubota. The concept came from Mary Lucier, whom Kubota had met through her association with the Sonic Arts Union, and the group, whose other participants were Navajo artist Cecelia Sandoval and Charlotte Warren, an African American, publicized itself with provocative visuals in the four colors. According to Yoshimoto’s research, the group consciously conceived of multimedia events as spaces for feminist interaction, with the aim of demonstrating ties among women while not hesitating to criticize racial stereotypes. As North American feminist art continued to be promoted mostly by white women, this kind of collectivism provided a base for Kubota to take a positive look back at her own cultural emergence. By focusing on these activities, Yoshimoto sheds light on a little-known but valuable example of interracial interaction during the 1970s, when feminist art was still dominated by white women.

We can see Kubota’s works as injecting a transcultural note into Western-centered contemporary art. Azusa Hashimoto discusses the ways in which Kubota’s works combine such diverse elements as technology, sculpture-like qualities, and Asian culture. She interprets Kubota’s organic use of circular and repetitive structures. Hashimoto responds to looped playbacks in Kubota’s works, such as the video attached to a wheel in her adaptation of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913/1951). She says that the movements quickly draw viewers into a playful mood, so that their thoughts are “suspended.” Furthermore, the similarly moving mirror, water, and other elements come from Kubota’s own childhood memories of play and scenery. Hashimoto looks at the deep connection of these works to the cyclical Buddhist philosophy that Kubota was familiar with. 

As portrayed in this book, Kubota provides a strong link between Japanese and American art and between women and contemporary art. Transcending boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and gender, Kubota should be resituated from her hitherto marginalized presence to being an important player in the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art. Her legacy demonstrates the importance of immigrant art, video art, feminist art, and contemporary art as domains where culture and gender unmistakably intersect.Viva Video! and the rich store of information in the catalog paves the way for a new appraisal of Shigeko Kubota and the possibilities of historical narratives in art, and as such, will have a major impact on the work of revising the narrative of contemporary art.

Izumi Nakajima
Associate professor, Osaka University