New York

Shigeko Kubota

Rene Block Gallery

A self-portrait of Shigeko Kubota might picture her as an explorer, out to conquer the art world a half-inch at a time with a Porta-pack on her back. Kubota’s writings reveal a wry sense of purpose about herself and her video work, often comparing the equipment to her body, joking about the hardships of carrying so much dead weight around. Her recent show, entitled “Meta-Marcel,” consisted of three “video sculptures,” plywood structures which housed T.V. monitors. The show’s title is, of course, a bit of homage to Kubota’s hero; her work represents a continuing effort to restate or perhaps improve upon Duchamp. She describes the piece Mountain as her womb, with tiny monitors dancing around inside it. The semi-smirk of this kind of self-observation goes along well with Duchamp’s ironic intelligence.

“Meta” has a dual meaning. “Later than” simply grants Duchamp historical precedence—but “meta” can also imply “transcending.” Certainly Kubota should aim to transcend Duchamp’s work; perhaps the irony is also in her recognition of the futility of such an attempt. For no matter how successful the parody and its implications, comparison is only a starting point for originality. Certainly others have been impressed by Duchamp’s place in art history, but a five-year obsession with another artist’s work can be dangerous to anyone’s personal development. I’m sure Kubota sees her own work as evolving and growing as she continues to parody Duchamp’s pieces, but the question remains, which do we need more—analyzing dead heroes, or developing fresh ideas from the master’s groundwork?

Kubota’s Window is a pun on Duchamp’s 1920 pun, Fresh Widow. In the original, the window panes are blocked by a dark leather covering. Kubota’s clear glass reveals a scrambled video pattern behind the panes, plus the projected words alongside stating that video is the window of yesterday/tomorrow. Kubota has asked whether Duchamp did everything in art but video. Here she seems to imply that his vision was limited because his materials were limited. Video is the new god, capable of replacing Duchamp, the old god, because video has the transcending power to be in both the past and future at once.

In Door, where the structure again repeats a 1920s work, Kubota inserts videotaped photos of Duchamp, and a conversation recording and preserving his image as icon. The conversation is Duchamp asserting that “art is mirage.” Here the facade cracks, and the deviousness of Kubota’s brand of admiration begins to show through. For even as she purports to worship Duchamp’s incredible originality, she relegates his creativity to an outmoded past. Once the personality of the artist becomes as precious as his work, he has become less a vital creator of ideas than an historic relic. Her “puns” that replace his playful literary puns with electronics uproot the gentle personal touch. She has kidnapped Duchamp from his society and thrust him into competition with ’70s technology; placed him into his own pieces, where his efforts translate as homemade and limited.

Mind was Duchamp’s medium, artworks the best visible means of externalizing his thoughts. The tenuousness of this process induced him to comment that indeed “art is a mirage.” By dissecting his work Kubota destroys the mirage and voids its meaning. Mountain, the pyramid-shaped piece conjuring images of volcano and wombs for Kubota, leaves the Duchamp love/hate fascination behind and looks instead to the need for colorful, lively video. We can only wait and see what subconscious influence Duchamp’s nimble mind may really have had on her work.

Deborah Perlberg