‘Liquid Reality’ at MoMA explores the intersections of Shigeko Kubota

Installation view of Shigeko Kubota: Liquid Reality, August 21, 2021 – January 1, 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Denis Doorly

Fluxus is everything we are interested in now: mixed media, in addition to categorization, collaborative processes. But Fluxus is not the first thing we talk about; it is not the bowl of the table, or the footnote on the opening side. Fluxus is too many media, too many people, and we need heroes with superpowers. To sell Wheaties and paintings and records and newspapers and search stories and all that junkola, we need to be heroes to ourselves – like brand new Cadillacs and Hermes belts and Dr. Squatch soap.

The problem with Shigeko Kubota is the problem with collaborating artists. The spirit of collaboration is not how we move product or entertainment; it does not nourish our marketplace or nourish our narcissism. Kubota was an integral part of Fluxus and the works of the Fluxus artists we are talking about – Yoko Ono, George Maciunas, John Cage, Nam June Paik, etc. To present her without that context is to tear meaning from the work, but to isolate her inside. Fluxus is diminishing the significance and dollar value of her work.

i “Shigeko Kubota: Liquid Reality, ”The Museum of Modern Art brings together six of the artist’s sculpture and video installation hybrids: Self-portrait (ca. 1970-71); Duchampiana: Naked on his way down a flight of stairs (1976); Three mountains (1976-1979), Berlin Diary: Thank you to my ancestors (1981), River (1979-1981), Haiku Video (1981), and Niagara Falls (1985). ThThe fifteen-year-long spans through an unstable cultural landscape: from the declining years of “happenings” to pre-punk to punk to post-punk to disco to no wave to new wave. The curation goes in line with individual versus context with a streamlined presentation of Kubota’s installations and lots of contextualizing information if you’re looking for it; there is an ingenious catalog introduced and supervised by Erica Papernik-Shimizu, and in MoMA’s online magazine, a just as nice overview provided by Papernik-Shimizu and Veronika Molnar. With a Kubota retrospective traveling through Japan through February 2022, “Liquid Reality” promotes and restores works by the New York-based Kubota and gathers almost enough of a checklist for the casual museum goer to get a feel for the artist. Kubota, who died in 2015, has not had a solo American museum exhibit in twenty-five years.

Shigeko Kubota. Self-portrait. ca. 1970- 71. Standard-definition video (color, silent). 5:24 min. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift from Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, 2021. © 2021 Estate of Shigeko Kubota / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Gift from Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, 2021. © 2021 Estate of Shigeko Kubota / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Kubota was born in 1937 and was introduced to Tokyo’s experimental arts and music circles by his dancer aunt, Chiya Kuni. With noise compositions, avant-garde performances, and groundbreaking technologies (such as tape recorders and projections), Tokyo went hand in hand with contemporary explorations in New York City – and in 1962, Kubota met John Cage and Yoko Ono at a stop in Tokyo on Cage’s concert tour. Kubota, after establishing a correspondence with Fluxus founder George Maciunas, ventured to New York City the following year and appeared in 1965 with her Vagina paint performance that at the time was seen as a feminist retort to works by Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein and a scene dominated by machismo. (Kubota would only perform Vagina paint once, and in an oral interview conducted with MoMA shortly before her death, he recalled that George Maciunas and Nam June Paik, whom she married in 1977, had “begged” her to do so.)

Kubota, who continued her studies in New York at New York University and The New School, continued to be an active citizen of the New York art world, where she taught at the School of Visual Arts and worked towards the first annual Women’s Video Festival at The Kitchen in 1972 and curator at the Anthology Film Archives from 1974 to 1983.

Formally trained as a sculptor, Kubota was quick to adopt video: the heavy, clumsy equipment appealed to her. (Sony’s first recording and playback system, Portapack, was released in 1967.) The burden was part of her identity as an artist and woman. To the book from 2013, A story about video art, she told Chris Meigh-Andrews, “Portapak and I traveled all over Europe and Japan without male accompaniment. Portapak tears down my spine, shoulder and waist. I travel alone with my Portapak on my back, as Vietnamese women do with their babies.” Kubota considered the video’s inherent decay and distortion as a gesture, and it suited her simultaneously American and Japanese fascination with landscape.In a 2007 interview with Phong Bui for Brooklyn Rail, she remembered, “film was chemical, but video was more organic. To me, Portapack was like a new brush.” For her 1991 exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Image, she explained how video compared itself to natural processes, such as the movement of clouds or water, or even the ebb and flow of life itself: “Once molded into the reality of video , infinite variation becomes possible, not only weightlessness, but total freedom to dissolve, reconstruct, mutate all forms, shape, color, location, speed, scale… liquid reality. ”

Shigeko Kubota. Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1976). Standard resolution video and Super 8mm film transferred to video (color, silent; 5:21 min.), Four cathode ray tube monitors and plywood. 66 1/4 × 30 15/16 × 67 inches (168.3 × 78.6 × 170.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift from Margot and John Ernst, Agnes Gund and Barbara Pine, 1981. Artwork © 2021 Estate of Shigeko Kubota / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Digital Image © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Denis Doorly

While the six works of “Liquid Reality” presents only part of the artist’s five decades of production, the years represented – 1970-85 – mark a shift in social, technological and artistic consciousness: the 1975 Whitney Biennale included video artists for the first time – eighteen of them; Warhol’s impossible vision of a culture of fame had begun to come true; and the muted palette of the late ’60s, moss green and bark brown and trousers, exploded in East Village’s black light neon and the candy-covered cacophony of MTV.

Chronologically the first work in the show, Self-portrait, 1970-71, frames the artist in medium close-up as she claps, mouths syllables, sings and communicates with the camera. Video distortions run through the image: band, color, ghostly layering. There is a chemical / acrylic quality to the chrome, but the image is not static like a photograph or painting. The camera sometimes sways unstable. The effect is very personal, immediate – despite all the hyper-conscious post-production. The artist reaches into his moment into yours. Self-portrait would eventually evolve into Video poem, shown at the first official PS1 show, Rooms. The 1976 exhibition takes a snapshot of the NYC spirit of the time with installations by 78 artists. Kubota’s work is easy to place in the company of even a partially subjective list: Lynn Hershman Leeson, recently seen at the New Museum, Ron Gorchov, currently on display at Cheim & Read, Bill Jensen, Colette Lumiere, Dieter Froese, Lucio Pozzi, Marjorie Strider, Judy Rifka, Stefan Eins, Eve Sonneman and Robert Grosvenor.

The second chronological work in the show, Duchampiana: Naked on his way down a flight of stairs, 1976, embeds television tubes in a plywood staircase and recreates Duchamp’s iconic work as well as classic compositions with the video’s fast cuts and irregular tempo. In the layers of film and video, the model smiles once, fleetingly, and now brings Duchamps’ somewhat outdated revelation to life. Three mountains 1976-79, and River, 1979-81, engages the artist’s relationship to the landscape. Three mountains takes on the contemplative grandiosity of the American Southwest, while River, the last of the two works, is more agitated, agitated, and roams into the East Village style: black paint, vibrant hues, videographic elements of hearts, stars, meandering lines, and an ultra-80s SMPTE color line. IN Berlin Diary: Thank you to my ancestors1981, Kubota considers form and abstraction, and perhaps graffiti, with the names of her ancestors inscribed with Japanese characters on a thin sheet of quartz hung over a small Sony television. Video Haiku-hanging piece, also 1981, promotes the artist’s meditation on the self, technology and quotidian. Niagara Falls, 1985, is a major consideration in the scale; like Video Haiku-hanging piece, the work is arguably more preoccupied with the cast shadows / reflections than the sculpture itself.

Shigeko Kubota. Detail of Niagara Falls I. 1985. Four-channel video (color, sound; 30:55 min.), Ten cathode ray tube monitors, plastic mirrors, plywood, water and sprinkler system, 8 feet × 54 inches × 8 feet (243.8 × 137, 2 × 243.8 cm). Courtesy Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation. © 2021 Estate of Shigeko Kubota / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Digital Image © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Denis Doorly

The two spaces in “Liquid Reality” configure Kubota’s works in an almost infinite symbol, and the more a viewer is willing to stand and watch and drive, the more the artist carries on. But if “Liquid Reality is a primer on Kubota, whose fierce, determined intelligence resists reduction, it is also a series of tempting curatorial questions. Fluxus and Tokyo avant-garde? The story of video art as a “Herstory”? (MoMA has recently acquired early works by Gretchen Bender, Dara Birnbaum, Beryl Korot, and Steina Vasulka.) Kubota and Nam June Paik? (Nam June Paik var recently viewed on SFMOMA.) Perhaps the whole of 2020 and 2021 have necessarily marked a kind of optimism – there must be something on the way, a new perspective, a better way of understanding – and Kubota is the ideal artist to request that instinct.

'Liquid Reality' at MoMA explores the intersections of Shigeko Kubota

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