The fascinating effects of Shigeko Kubota’s video sculptures
By the time Shigeko Kubota left Japan for the United States in 1964, she had already met John Cage and Yoko Ono, and had had her first solo exhibition at the Naiqua Gallery, Tokyo, in 1963. Entitled “1st Love, 2nd Love… ”, the exhibition included an interactive sculptural installation which, although Kubota is a celebrated member of Tokyo‘s avant-garde, no one has written about. (She was a woman, after all.) So when Fluxus frontman George Maciunas invited her to join him in New York that year, she came without hesitation in hopes of getting a job. critical recognition. (Shortly after arriving, Maciunas declared her group vice chairman.) There, in the shadow of her much more famous husband, Nam June Paik, she embarked on a series of experiments that culminated in to what she described as a “video sculpture”. : video monitors integrated into three-dimensional structures.
‘Shigeko Kubota: Liquid Reality’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), highlights this pivotal period in the artist’s career, presenting seven video works – including six sculptural – produced between 1976 and 1985. Not surprisingly , the embrace of intermediate trends and zen inspiration from fluxus are present everywhere: the movement is hidden in the work‘s personal and diaristic impetus and concern for nature as a site and subject. Underlining Kubota’s premonitory engagement with the themes of identity, technology and nature, the exhibition reveals the artist’s simultaneous exploration of the ephemeral and monumental qualities of his chosen medium.
The works are distributed in two rooms facing each other. The former is brilliantly lit and features minimalist plywood structures encrusted with videos, including Three Mountains (1976-1979) and Duchampiana: Nude descending a staircase (1976). As with most of Kubota’s video sculptures, the flickering imagery on television screens – footage of her travels on the West Coast and a female silhouette lined with colored pixels, respectively – oscillates between abstraction and representation, revealing a matrix of associations linking the physical world to the mnemonic. The reductive geometric shapes that contain them – a trio of pyramid-shaped structures in Three Mountains and a four-step riser Duchampiana – listen to their eponymous sources, drawing on Kubota’s fascination with nature and the history of art.
The second gallery, dark and airy, houses three kinetic works largely in steel – River (1979-1981), Niagara Falls I (1985) and Haiku video (1981) – where the exposed bodies of analog monitors become sculptural objects. Dissolving the boundaries and contours of individual works, the immersive atmosphere emphasizes the viewer‘s subjectivity: the hypnotic sound of water – raining from the sprinkler system to a puddle below – and its kaleidoscopic reflections through mirrored surfaces (River and Niagara Falls) merge with the dazzling effects of oscillating monitors (River and Haiku video). Niagara Falls, the most imposing structure of “Liquid Reality”, is suspended from the ceiling by cables, its back exposed to a window. Comprising a scaffolding of ten cascading CRT monitors varying in size to create the effect of a cubist rock face, the landscape projected onto each captures the elemental power of Niagara Falls in four seasons. With the addition of an external spotlight that plays on this fractured surface, the effect is disorientation and dread.
Since MoMA’s 1981 acquisition of Kubota Nude descending a staircase was their first of a video sculpture, it seems ironic that they’ve waited so long to pay such a modest tribute to him. That ‘Liquid Reality’ is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States in 25 years only adds to this sad testament. Yet while the promise of brighter horizons in New York City eluded him when it came to serious investigation, his tenacity and brilliance as an artist did not.
“Shigeko Kubota: liquid reality” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 1, 2021.
Main picture: Shigeko Kubota, River (detail), 1979-1981, three-channel standard definition video, CRT monitors, stainless steel, plastic mirrors, water and wave machine, variable dimensions. Courtesy of: Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation, © Estate of Shigeko Kubota, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and VAGA at ARS, New York; photograph: Denis Doorly