Artist Profile – Shigeko Kubota

Published on 2018-05-17

Artwork featured in the salon: 'SoHo/SoAP Rain Damage' (1985) Video with Audio, Duration 08:25. On loan courtesy of EAI

From her Fluxus Vagina Painting to her interpretation of video art as a river of experience, the late Shigeko Kubota’s work favored fluids. And her experimental career flowed freely through a wide range of institutions, organizations, and movements.

Her work is in the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York and the Toyama Museum of Art in Japan. She was at Documentas 6 and 8, scored a solo show at the Whitney Museum, and popped up at The Current artist Steina Vasulka’s The Kitchen space in New York. She also won recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. 

Kubota was born in Niigata, Japan. As she started to show her avant-garde work with friends in Group Ongaku, Hi Red Center, and Zero Jigen, critics were dismissive. “It was 1963. I thought, ‘I will have no chance in Japan.’” she said. “At any rate, I wanted to be famous.” She moved to New York and immediately fell in with Fluxus. George Maciunas picked her up from JFK and was soon referring to her as the “vice president” of the organization. 

Fluxus was a powderkeg for her career. She hosted communal dinners that concluded in co-creating Fluxus objects. She met Yoko Ono and George Brecht. Also Nam June Paik, who she married in 1977. Maciunas leaned on her to do Vagina Painting, a 1965 performance of her attaching a paintbrush to her underwear and covering a canvas in red paint. It turned the tables on Yves Klein’s Anthropometry paintings that used female bodies like rubber stamps; it paved the way for feminist performance artists like Janine Antoni; it was an early example of menstruation-as-medium art that Judy Chicago and Tracey Emin continued. It’s considered one of her most famous works.

1965 was also the year Kubota bought a Sony Portapak and began her pioneering work in video art. She recorded a steady stream of her daily life, and notably introduced poetic and sculptural elements to the emerging medium. Nude Descending the Staircase, from her “Duchampiana” series, reimagines Duchamp’s famed painting as a plywood staircase with a screen inlaid between each step. MoMA’s acquisition of the piece helped her step outside of her husband’s shadow. “Nam June was stunned,” Kubota said. “It was I who had earned cash money.”

Her video sculptures eventually became more focused on nature and experience. River, first shown at the Whitney in 1979, positioned a trough of water in front of three videos of Kubota swimming, so that the viewer could only see her “in” the water. She described it as “liquid reality.

SoHo SoAP/Rain Damage brings together her proclivity for personal, diaristic video and her exploration of video as a fluid, water-sign medium. The piece chronicles the results of a flood that ruined the studio she shared with Paik and cuts in pre-storm shots, a babbling narration of what happened, and a superimposed poem: "It rains in my heart, it rains on my video art... Art imitates nature, nature imitates art."