Shigeko Kubota (1937–2015)

Shigeko Kubota, 1983. Photo: Video Data Bank,

One of Shigeko Kubota’s best-known works may have happened only because George Maciunas and Nam June Paik “begged her” to do it, but it still took a lot of guts. Arriving in New York from an art community in Tokyo that seemed determined to ignore her, she recalled being met at the airport by Maciunas, who scripted her into his summer Perpetual Fluxus Festival in 1965. It was here that she attached a brush to her underwear and squatted down to produce Vagina Painting, immortalized in Maciunas’s photograph of the one-time event.

Vagina Painting, perhaps not surprisingly, echoed Paik’s Zen for Head, performed in Wiesbaden for another Maciunas affair three years earlier. In both works, an Asian body abjects itself for an embodied public ritual of “action” and “gesture” painting, staging what Paik openly acknowledged at the time was his performance, for a Euro-American art world, of the “yellow peril.” Kubota had another agenda, which she later summarized as “Video Is Vengeance of Vagina.” Doing the performance for Maciunas and Paik modeled new chutzpah for feminists and set her life on its American course; after Maciunas took her to see Fluxus in its Canal Street offices in lower Manhattan, she “hung around this area ever since,” marrying Paik in 1977. [1]

Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting, 1965. Performance view, Perpetual Fluxus Festival, New York, 1965. Shigeko Kubota. Photo: George Maciunas, 1965/2015 © George Maciunas Foundation Inc.

Kubota would allow herself to be defined by this union, making at least four videos of Paik that chronicle her partner at various moments and in various travails. (Among these are Trip to Korea, 1984, Sexual Healing, 1998, April is the Cruelest Month, 1999, and Winter in Miami 2005, 2006.) At the same time, she continued moving in her own direction, describing herself and Paik as being “like water and oil.”

The binary took dialectical form. If he would emphasize the popular and the ephemeral, she would honor Duchamp and the high art discourse of Conceptualism. If Paik gravitated toward massive cultural events and Global Grooves, 1973, she perfected intimate video modes that she referred to not as diaries but as “ghosts.” If he shot in the studio on a tripod with a fixed camera, she would carry her heavy Sony Portapack to videotape Duchamp’s gravestone, the image wobbling with fatigue and emotion. “We came of age in between analog and digital,” she recalled in one 2014 interview, and for her this meant connecting video to narrative traditions of the scroll or mural—unfolding over time, but potentially monumental.

Growing up the daughter of a Buddhist teacher (and blessed with a name that means “luxuriant child”), she spent her childhood in a temple: “I saw paintings of hell and paradise unfolding on the walls like a film script.” That sensibility endured, informing works that ranged from an embrace of nature in balance (River, 1979–81) to the acceptance of disaster (SoHo SoAp/Rain Damage, 1985) or death.

Shigeko Kubota, SoHo SoAp/Rain Damage, 1985, video, color, sound, 8 minutes 25 seconds. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

And if Paik asserted that “Shigeko discovered death for video,” it was a kind of death that was neither tragic nor heroic. [2] In many of these works, video is a “liquid reality” (the artist’s description of River), the streaks on its magnetic tape analogized consciously to Buddhist flows, cyclical returns, and the quieting of the self. Useful to that set of analogies was the work of John Cage, an important contributor to the American interest in Buddhism during the 1960s; even in Japan it was through Kubota’s interest in Cage as a musician that she discovered Fluxus, Maciunas, and the world that awaited her in New York.

Maciunas was Kubota’s mentor, Paik her life partner, but Duchamp was her muse. Kubota did a feature on him for the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu techō in 1968, and through one of the many coincidences that blessed her life, was grounded on an airplane with Duchamp soon after the magazine was printed. (She showed it to him on the plane, and they became friends.) It was close to the end of Duchamp’s life; his death propelled her to make an entire series she called “Duchampiana,” 1972–91, each work given its own subtitle. One of these was shown at the 1977 Documenta with the subtitle Nude Descending a Staircase, 1976; it became the first video sculpture acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a triumphant vindication for the medium and for this female practitioner. Yet Kubota remained relatively unknown; as Jonas Mekas put it, she was “always promoting others, herself remaining invisible.” [3] Her impact was quietly fundamental nonetheless, from her stints as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf to her role as the first curator of video under Mekas at Anthology Film Archives from 1974 to ’82.

Shigeko Kubota, Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase, 1976, super 8mm film transferred to video, color, silent, monitors, and plywood. 66 x 31 x 67". Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Shigeko Kubota

Among her video “ghosts,” Marcel Duchamp’s Grave, 1972–75, is perhaps Kubota’s most exemplary installation. Intended to expand from floor to ceiling, it consists of stacked monitors that loop the twenty-minute U-Matic video she made of Duchamp’s grave site in Rouen, paying particular attention to the epitaph, which she found hilarious: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent,” (“Besides, it’s always the others who die.”) Sadly, this time it was she.

Caroline A. Jones is a professor of art history in the history, theory, and criticism program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.

1. Quotes from the oral history interview with Kubota conducted by Miwako Tezuka, October 11, 2009, at Kubota’s residence in New York City, posted in 2014 at Kubota’s first marriage, to composer David Behrman, ended in 1969; she moved to California to be with Paik shortly thereafter.

2. Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota Video Sculptures (Zurich: Kunsthaus Zurich, 1981), 31.

3. Jonas Mekas, “Foreword,” Shigeko Kubota (New York: Maya Stendhal Gallery, 2007).