How Shigeko Kubota Pioneered Video as a Personal Medium
Shigeko Kubota in her studio. © Tom Haar, 1972. Courtesy of Tom Haar.
When Sony introduced its Portapak camera in 1967, it put the first truly portable video camera into the hands of the public. Artists were quick to start experimenting with this new tool, and an entirely new art form, called video art, soon emerged. A narrative codifying its development would later take shape. “Fathers” of the medium were designated: Peter Campus, Bill Viola, and, perhaps most prominently, Nam June Paik. But video art had mothers, too—and central among them is Shigeko Kubota.
As it happens, the mother-father framework applies particularly well to Kubota and Paik. They fell in love while they were both key members of the Fluxus group in New York, beginning in the early 1960s. In 1977, they married. Like the tangled cords running from the monitors in their work, the personal and professional were intertwined in the life they created together.
They fueled each other’s creativity, but Kubota’s substantial legacy became overshadowed by her husband’s equally formidable work. “We are very different, like water and oil,” she said in a 2009 interview. “Even when I did my own stuff, people said, ‘She imitates Nam June.’ I found it infuriating. So I headed further in the direction of [Marcel] Duchamp. When Nam June went populist, I went for high art.”
Kubota was born in Niigata, Japan, a prefecture whose fertile rice production slated it for nuclear destruction during World War II. But nature intervened, as she once explained: “I was in second grade when the bomb went off….[The Americans] were supposed to drop the bomb over my town, Niigata….but it was cloudy, not sunny, so they went to Nagasaki instead. That changed my life.”
Kubota came of age in the post-war period. She began her university studies in sculpture in Tokyo in the late 1950s, when the city was the seat of a burgeoning avant-garde in Japanese art. In 1964, she was ready to stake her place in this scene with her first solo show at Naiqua Gallery, which she filled with a mountain of love letters and crushed paper covered over with a white sheet. Visitors had to scale this rather challenging form in order to discover an array of sculptures of welded metal pipe that Kubota had placed at the top. The critics ignored her coming-out.
Recognizing what many of her peers also knew, that the post-war Japanese art world was not ready to accept women artists, Kubota did not hesitate when Fluxus founder George Maciunas invited her to move to New York the same year as her Naiqua Gallery show. Though the American art world was not much more welcoming to women, she understood that her chances for success and recognition would be better there. So she quit her teaching job, bought a plane ticket, and arrived in New York in 1964 to join Maciunas and other artists making work that would ultimately expand the boundaries of art.
In 1970, Kubota bought a Sony Portapak and turned the camera on her life and herself. She made autobiographical videos whose colors and images she would manipulate, sometimes to near abstraction. She immediately took to video, describing it variously as a form of writing; an “organic” medium, “like brown rice…brown curd, very oriental, like seaweed, made in Japan;” and as fiercely feminist. “Video is Vengeance of Vagina. / Video is Victory of Vagina,” she wrote repeatedly in the many poems, statements, and other texts she composed to accompany her work.
A visit to the grave of Duchamp—whom she described as “the root of my art memory and my work”—inspired Kubota to merge video and sculpture. She saw his grave as a cube and translated this impression into Video Chess (1968–75), a cubic chessboard with a monitor embedded inside, its screen beaming images of, among other things, Duchamp at a game of chess with John Cage.
On the heels of this inaugural video sculpture, she produced another witty homage to her muse, Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1976). Riffing on the elder artist’s famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), Kubota fashioned a freestanding wooden staircase with a color monitor embedded in each step showing looping, manipulated footage of a real nude woman (filmmaker Sheila McClaughlin) descending an actual staircase.
Shigeko Kubota with Nam June Paik in their Westbeth studio. © Tom Haar, 1974. Courtesy of Tom Haar.
With these early works, Kubota introduced video sculpture into the lexicon of art. She also discovered a mode of artmaking that she would explore for the rest of her long career. Her video sculptures grew in scale and complexity, sometimes becoming immersive environments in which she projected videos into the space itself. Monitors of every conceivable size and shape continued to puncture her forms, but Kubota also released them from their enclosures so that they, too, became sculptural objects, their screens always alive with images.
Nature, her native Japan, and people she loved and admired fed Kubota’s work. She made the mountains of the American Southwest rise in plywood and images of cherry blossoms fracture and cascade across screens. In a tender portrait of her late husband, Nam June Paik I (2007), a man-shaped metal armature holds monitors at the head, torso, hands, and feet, each one showing multiplied images of Paik.
“Video is a ghost of yourself,” Kubota said, meaning that it contained some essence of its maker. She also often declared, “Viva Video”—and as her video lives, so does her legacy.