New York

Shigeko Kubota, Three Mountains, 1976–79, four-channel video, color, sound, approx. 30 minutes each. Installation view. Photo: Denis Doorly.

Shigeko Kubota, Three Mountains, 1976–79, four-channel video, color, sound, approx. 30 minutes each. Installation view. Photo: Denis Doorly.

Shigeko Kubota

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

After studying sculpture at the Tokyo University of Education, Shigeko Kubota (1937–2015) relocated to New York in 1964 and quickly established herself within the city’s Fluxus community as a facilitator of events, a maker of objects, and a performance artist in her own right. Yet the groundbreaking 1969 exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium,” staged at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery (the artist reviewed the show for the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu Techo), and the invention of the Sony Porta-Pak (an affordable compact video camera with instant playback) irrevocably changed the way she would approach artmaking. “Liquid Reality,” a presentation that features a decade and a half of Kubota’s trailblazing output, begins in 1970—a watershed year, for that’s when the artist bought herself a Porta-Pak.

Self-Portrait, ca. 1970–71, the only video in the show without a sculptural element, opens a window onto Kubota’s early experiments with the medium. Rendered in a shifting palette of neon yellow, hot pink, and cyan, the single-channel piece depicts the artist opening and closing her mouth, which is radiating light. Kubota achieved the work’s intense Fauvist hues using a synthesizer made by engineer Shuya Abe and artist Nam June Paik, whom she eventually wed in 1977. By playing with feedback, she also interpolated her face with visible scan lines and sparking glitches. Kubota called the Porta-Pak a “new paintbrush,” but characterized the device—which, despite being relatively compact, weighed about twenty pounds—in more corporeal terms as well. She described herself as “bleeding” and “shitting” video, carrying her camera “as Vietnamese women do . . . their [babies].” As Kubota espoused the notion of electronic media as sensory prosthetic—popularized by theorist Marshall McLuhan—she also underscored the gendered, racialized, and coded nature of the machine as it fused, cyborg-like, with her own body.

The exhibition includes merely one example from Kubota’s profound two-decade engagement with the work of Marcel Duchamp. Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase, 1976—the first video sculpture ever purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (in 1981)—comprises a stout plywood staircase in which are embedded four monitors playing garishly colorized footage of filmmaker Sheila McLaughlin going down a set of glitched-out steps. As layered fast- and slow-motion clips from multiple perspectives garble McLaughlin’s naked form, the chronophotography that originally inspired the creation of Duchamp’s 1912 painting is taken to new heights.

That piece, however, is an outlier here, as most of the video sculptures on view take environmental phenomena—including rivers, waterfalls, and reflective pools—as their subject matter (fitting for an artist who was fascinated by Land art and grew up around the mountains of the Niigata Prefecture in Japan). Kubota’s tongue-in-cheek literalization of “media ecology” challenged false dichotomies between nature and technology while celebrating the potential sublimity of both. In Three Mountains, 1976–79, seven video monitors that play footage from the artist’s travels (via foot, car, and helicopter) in the American West are nestled in the mirrored recesses of three large plywood pyramids built by fellow video artist Al Robbins. Filmed in mythic locales such as the Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Park, the work depicts sunsets in preposterously ersatz hues and moving sierras overlaid with geometric patterns. Enhanced by the kaleidoscopic effects of the faceted mirrors and an ambient recording of wind, Three Mountains feels extrasensory. Yet the simple pyramids—perhaps a riff on Minimalist sculpture, especially when used as props for avant-garde dance—keep viewers tethered to perspectives that deny a full view of the action unfolding. Vision is further obfuscated in River, 1979–81, in which three suspended monitors facing downward function like projectors, transmitting punchy graphics and colorized sequences of Kubota swimming onto the watery contents of a simulated river in a steel basin. To discern the images flowing by requires physical exertion—crouching, craning, squinting.

Kubota sought an alternative to the way that video is created and consumed, encouraging viewers to critically engage with the medium rather than passively absorb it. “Why do I climb the mountain?” Kubota asked in her writings on Three Mountains. “Not ‘Because it is there,’ a colonialist/imperialist notion, but to perceive: to see.”