Shigeko Kubota, a pioneer of video art and a well-connected Fluxus artist known for using her body to ponder time and space, died from cancer in Manhattan on Thursday at age 77.
Today, Kubota, born in 1937 in Niigata, Japan, is perhaps better remembered for her 1965 performance Vagina Painting, in which Kubota attached a paintbrush to her skirt, squatted, and moved around over a canvas. The performance had a number of references—it spoofed Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, alluded to Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries,” and acted as a symbol for menstrual blood.
Vagina Painting is a cornerstone of feminist art, and it can even be seen as a forerunner to the wave of abject art from the ’90s, which also often alluded to bodily fluids. Kubota, however, considered it an experiment more than anything else. “I was not so interested in performance. I did that piece because I was begged to do it,” she said in a 2014 oral history.
George Maciunas, the leader of the Fluxus movement, had asked Kubota to stage that performance. (He also created the performance’s only documentation—a set of photographs.) In 1964, Maciunas invited Kubota to New York and offered her a place to stay. Having had her first show at Tokyo’s Naiqua Gallery the year prior, and having gotten no critical recognition for it, Kubota accepted Maciunas’s offer. He later named her the Vice Chairman of Fluxus.
Fluxus was a New York–based, avant-garde art movement during the ’60s that appealed to Kubota for its “anti-art” strategies and its interest in Zen Buddhism. Unlike the other Fluxus artists, Kubota did not stage many performances—she had stage fright. (It was for this same reason that she never became a pianist, even though her mother, a classical musician, had trained her to be one.) Through the Fluxus movement, Kubota met many of the most radical artists of her time, notably Yoko Ono, George Brecht, and Nam June Paik, who later became her second husband in 1965.
Like Paik, Kubota was an early adopter of video technology. When Sony introduced the Portapak, the first portable video camera, in 1965, Paik immediately bought one. Kubota followed not too long after. Yet, unlike Paik and many other early video artists, Kubota combined video with sculpture. Video, for her, could be used for its sculptural and poetic qualities. In her 2014 oral history, Kubota said, “When I began carrying a Portapak, I realized writing is something that I can do with the camera.”
Also like Paik, Kubota admired Marcel Duchamp’s work. In 1968, Kubota met Duchamp on a plane, when they were traveling to the opening of Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, in Rochester. Kubota remained in touch with Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, through the remainder of his life. (Duchamp died that same year.) Four years later, Kubota made a video tribute to Duchamp. She traveled to his grave, in Rouen, and filmed his gravestone. In the video, which was later included in her 1975 installation Duchamp’s Grave, Kubota’s voice can be heard repeating, “Marcel Duchamp, 1887 to 1968.”
Kubota returned again to the Dada artist with “Duchampiana,” a series of video sculptures. Nude Descending the Staircase, a work in that series, translates Duchamp’s famed painting into Kubota’s favored video language. Four screens appear inset in a small plywood staircase, one monitor between each stair. Barbara London, who was then a video curator at MoMA, was impressed by the work and acquired it for the museum’s collection. “Nam June was stunned,” Kubota said. “It was I who had earned cash money.”
Kubota’s work has often been discussed by feminist scholars with respect to how she used the body (Kubota, at times, carried her camera on her back, just as Vietnamese women do with their children). But Kubota never involved herself in the feminist movement. She supported it, though, and, in a 2007 interview with Phong Bui, Kubota said, “[Video] was equal to both men and women because it was new and fairly inexpensive and we all had the same access to it.”
In the ’80s, Kubota’s video sculptures began to incorporate images of nature and more direct references to Buddhism. Kubota once described visiting Buddhist temples as a child and seeing the wall murals, which, she said, unfolded in time, much like video. She also had a tendency to describe video like a river—a continuous stream of moments.
With River, an installation first staged at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979, Kubota made the nature references literal. Three monitors playing images of Kubota swimming are hung above a trough filled with water. The only way to see these videos is by looking at them through the lens of nature.
Kubota’s work received two major surveys in the ’90s—one at the American Museum of the Moving Image, the other at the Whitney Museum of American Art—though since then, she has not received a major solo museum show. As scholars and curators are discovering, however, that female artists played a much larger role in the ’60s avant-garde than history previously remembered, it seems likely that museum visitors can expect to see more of Kubota’s work in the future. That may be exactly what Kubota hoped for. As she said in her oral history, “I said [to Paik], ‘Video is a ghost of yourself.’ It’s like your shadow. It reveals your interior. It still exists after you die.”