Kazue Kobata (1946–2019)

Kazue Kobata. ©️ VOGUE JAPAN.

I FIRST MET KAZUE KOBATA in New York City, in the mid-1970s, with the dancer Min Tanaka, to whom Kazue was a lifelong manager and friend. She asked for my assistance in securing a performance venue that would prevent Min—who was just starting to experiment with naked bisoku movement—from once again being arrested by the NYPD. We three quickly decided that he should dance on the roof of the Clocktower, an important early alternative space that I founded in 1972. This marked the beginning of many happy and challenging years of collaborations and performances for New York audiences as Min became more and more recognized as an international leader of avant-garde dance. Because of this connection, Kazue and I became friends and saw each other frequently in the city, but also around the world, as I was then an international curator in addition to being the director of PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), and she was constantly traveling for her roles as translator, curator, writer, and organizer.

Essential to our relationship was her work as a translator, though through her genius I came to realize that translating extended far beyond the interpretation of language. We were once together in Tokyo with her good friend Susan Sontag, who remarked that in Japan she was not only Kazue’s guest, but also her prisoner. Susan, whose work Kazue officially began translating in the 1970s, correctly stated that although many outsiders fall in love with Japan they are rarely able to learn the language. This presents the usual problems of dependency and potential misunderstanding, but also creates tight-knit bonds not unlike those of kinship.

This was certainly true in our family. Kazue was the godmother to my son, Lokke Highstein, and frequently stayed with us in our New York loft. She and my husband, an international lawyer, often became immersed in the legal disputes that seemed to follow her friends around. “Talent attracts trouble,” Kazue used to say. In addition to being mischievous, she was a natural opponent of bureaucracy and a born agitator. (Susan admired her willingness to fight with persistence and eloquence.) Kazue loved the Americanism “I got your back” and used it as often as possible, sometimes with decidedly formal participants. Cecil Taylor? “He’s not worried about the piano . . . He knows I’ve got his back.” Umberto Eco? “I’m fine with that semiotics conference; Eco’s got my back.” 

Kazue always encouraged the dreams of my son, who at the age of five was determined to be a ninja warrior, then gravitated toward photography and spent a summer on Min’s farm, feeding rabbits. Next he aspired to be in a rock band and then to become a DJ, again encouraged by Kazue, who years later had him teach popular music courses at her university. When he fell for a Japanese woman, Satoko Yakushiji, Kazue interviewed Satoko, reviewed all the wedding plans, talked to the bride’s mystified parents, and assured them that my husband, Fred, and I were a satisfactory family. Unable to attend the wedding herself, she announced, “I am giving the ultimate wedding gift! A translator!” We received a call from the gracious and beautiful Risa Ikeda, a sometime collaborator who explained that Kazue had ordered her to serve for four days as an unpaid translator at the Long Island wedding.

As a superb simultaneous translator, Kazue often interpreted for academics and agents of state power, but she also had early, important relationships with the political undergrounds of the late ’60s and early ’70s in Japan, Cuba, and the US, where she met with members of the Black Panthers. Although she eventually grew disillusioned with political activism—a disenchantment perhaps intensified by her many left-wing friends who were forced into hiding—Kazue never stopped pursuing a better world through her artistic belief. She was immensely proud of the contributing editorship she held at Artforum during the 1980s and ’90s, and while she could command significant sums for her translating, she more often than not carried out art-world assignments for free.

And Kazue translated far beyond language. For me, she translated friendships, artistic understandings, transatlantic political attitudes, complicated sexual histories, fashion and dress, traditional and untraditional theater—and, happily, great food, drink, and bars. A tour of Tokyo bar life in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Roppongi was an essential part of any visit to the city. Kazue and I shared a determination to not let age affect our ability to discover new places or activities, and we had an envied reputation as doyennes of nightlife. About twenty years ago, I introduced Kazue to Escuelita, a famous Latin nightclub in Times Square. She was an immediate fan of this relaxed and inexpensive club, and when we won an amateur dance contest, our pictures were glued along its stairwell; Kazue considered it her greatest American honor.

Kazue held the position of adjunct curator at PS1 for over thirty years. While there, she organized five major exhibitions and over twenty smaller one-person shows and performances, supervised the Japanese artist residency program, and worked tirelessly to raise funds for these projects. Later in life, she reluctantly accepted a professorship at Tokyo University of the Arts. She was worried about joining the ranks of the enemy—the bureaucracy, the authorities. Susan finally convinced her to do it, mounting increasingly articulate arguments about education and knowledge. She told me privately that she worried about Kazue’s old age and her lack of preparation for retirement. The real effect of Kazue’s teaching career, however, was unexpected to all of us—she became a dynamic and completely devoted mentor to her students, pouring into them a lifetime of wisdom. She saw her role as akin to that of a special forces operative, embedded in the university to instill in students the dream of being an artist and a responsibility to society.

Kazue was one of the first people I would call to try out new ideas when I started the Clocktower radio station in 2003. That year, when our radical PS1 arts center made the unusual choice to merge with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she was the third person to learn of this secret decision. It is impossible to imagine being in Tokyo without Kazue, without spending the late night and early morning hours with her in tiny bars, discussing art and music and dance. Truly, she was not just a friend, but also a translator of life. 

Alanna Heiss is director of Clocktower Productions and founding director of MoMA PS1.