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Art In Conversation

Shigeko Kubota with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui

In the midst of the preparation for her new exhibit, My Life with Nam June Paik: Video Sculpture and Installation, at Maya Stendhal Gallery (Sept. 6–Oct. 27), Shigeko Kubota welcomes Rail Publisher Phong Bui to her loft/studio (one of the lengendary George Maciunas buildings in SoHo) to talk about her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): Can we start with your upbringing, then perhaps your experience of having been brought up and lived through World War II, and its aftermath?

Shigeko Kubota: I was born in 1937 in a small town, Niigata, which was known for its natural beauty. I used to climb the mountains and go swimming and there was always clean water, which makes the best sake and good rice. Not polluted, you know. My father’s house was like a temple on the mountain, really a hidden part of Japan. Overall, I had a good upbringing and a nice childhood, with nature and a strong sense of my family background.  Anyway, I was very young when the war was going on.  Actually, after the Americans dropped the first atom bomb in Hiroshima, they initially wanted to drop the second one in my home town. But all the B-29s and other planes were so crowded in the sky, so instead Nagasaki became the second target. (I learned about that fact by reading it in some Pentagon reports some thirty years later in New York). It was a narrow escape. As far as a period of recovery after the war is concerned, there was an urgency to reestablish our stability in a hurry.  And that had a terrific effect on all the arts, as well.

Rail: That’s when you knew that you wanted to become an artist?

Kubota: Partly that and partly I always wanted to be an artist when I was a kid.  My father was a school teacher and my mother and my sister had studied classical music. They thought I was good in painting, so they were very supportive of me.

Rail: That’s great. So when you finally went to Tokyo University of Education to study art, what did you feel to be the sentiment of the times?

Kubota: Well, it was very active and open compared to now, which is so conservative, just like what’s going on here in America and the rest of the world. We’ve become very conservative and it’s scary. It makes you question the whole notion of democracy and what it really means.

Rail: What sort of work were you making then, and did you get involved with many political activities as a student?

Kubota: Yes. I was a member of the most radical undergraduate group, the National Federation of Student Self-Government Association, which continued on even after college. When I got a job teaching high school in Tokyo, I became a member of the union. I was both socialist and communist. In 1964 I had my first one person show at Naiqua Gallery in Tokyo, with the floor filled with a ton of newspaper and a big metal sculpture in the shape of a long pipe in the middle of the space. It was very well received, but I felt that I needed to go to New York, so I called my union friends, to say goodbye, and they were all very disappointed. They said “Oh why would you want to go to a capitalist city?” and I said, “You know, for art you have to go to New York.”

Rail: Did you have any contact with Gutai artists?

Kubota: Not really, Gutai was mostly from Osaka and I was in Tokyo. I was more friendly with a radical and experimental music collective called Gurupu Ongaku (Group Music). Actually, I met them through my aunt, who was a dancer and had done some collaborations with them. Then, in 1962, John Cage came to Tokyo with David Tudor, and gave a few performances; oh yes, I was very impressed.  Of course, performance art was very popular in Japan too, but nothing like the chance operations by John Cage.  I felt like since I was already doing some radical and anarchistic things here in Tokyo, I should fit okay in New York.

Rail: What happened when you came to New York in 1964?

Kubota: George Maciunas came with a rented car and picked me and my friend Mieko Siomi up at Kennedy airport and took us directly to his loft on 159 Canal Street, which at the time was at the Fluxus center. That’s where I met everybody: Nam June Paik, Dick Higgens, George Brecht (who came from New Jersey), and many others, Joe Jones, Alison Knowles.  All of us were poor and crazy.  It was a most exciting time.

Rail: How did you come to know Maciunas?

Kubota: George never visited Japan, Yoko Ono introduced us; her and Toshi Ichiyanagi. Yoko also was especially instrumental in introducing me to other Fluxus artists. Anyway, George used to write to us, “Come over to New York and we’ll do some work together—Fluxus performances and concerts.” George was very generous and he also liked oriental philosophy.

Rail: Over the last few decades, most artists of the younger generation, like myself, identify your work with video sculpture; but in fact you have made several remarkable performance pieces in the mid ‘60s.  Let’s talk about Vagina Painting (held at Filmmaker Cooperative at Astor Place in 1965 where Jonas Mekas would occasionally let Maciunas take over the space to use for his Fluxfest) which was considered a kind of parody of Yves Klein’s use of the female body as a painting tool, as well as Pollock’s action painting. What was the reaction among those who saw it, and what did it mean to you at the time?

Kubota: They all said, “Oh, that’s a dirty idea, low art becomes high art.” Now people like it because it has a strong connection to Feminist Art, which is okay. But I didn’t really pay attention to what people thought about my work at the time. I was experimenting. The performance was important to my growth as a young artist. As you already know, through George I met Jonas Mekas, who had a great deal of influence on me and, because I recognized the connection between image and video, and since the whole performance scene became less active, I began to change my process as a result.

Rail: Besides Mekas and Macuinas, did you manage to have close relationships with any other Fluxus artists?

Kubota: Yeah, Nam June, George Brecht, Jackson MacLow, Joe Jones and and Ay-O, but they all moved away to other places in America or Europe. They didn’t stay in New York like Macuinas, Nam June, and I, who were stubborn. We just wanted to stay put in New York. I’m agriculturally minded. Once I stay, I plant and then wait for the plant to grow. Besides, nobody was around to help George at the office and all the programs that needed to get done. That’s when I came and helped George in any way I could.

Shigeko Kubota,<em> Jogging Lady</em> (1993) 5”x5”x10” monitors. Courtesy of the artist and Maya Stendhal Gallery.
Shigeko Kubota, Jogging Lady (1993) 5”x5”x10” monitors. Courtesy of the artist and Maya Stendhal Gallery.

Rail: Right.  He named you the Vice President of Fluxus.  At any rate, what was your friendship with Duchamp and Cage like? In what sense did their work have an influence on you?

Kubota: I knew of  John Cage because of his first visit to Japan in 1962, and through him I learned about Duchamp and his work. Later, I met Duchamp on a plane as we were both going there for Merce Cunningham’s opening of Walk Around Time, in Buffalo.

Rail: Which was based on Duchamp’s large glass with beautiful sets by Jasper Johns…

Kubota: Exactly. It was a great coincidence since I’ve always admired both of their work. Cage’s chance operation, embracing any sound as potential music, and tying that with his interest in Jazz and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, and Duchamp’s anti-art spirit, was all very important to what we were doing at Fluxus. I was also influenced by their lifestyles.

Rail: Yeah. You paid homage to both of them in several pieces, including Duchampiana: Video Chess, 1968-1975, and, a moving tribute to Duchamp in Duchamp’s Grave, 1972-75.

Kubota: After meeting Duchamp on a plane, a few months later, I came to Toronto to photograph him and Cage playing chess at the “Reunion” concert.  Later I made these images into a sculptural piece.  The idea was to have the video monitor facing up with two layers of transparent chessboard below and chess pieces sitting above.  So that when two people play Video Chess, not only will every move they make be accommodated by the original soundtrack that Cage had composed for the concert, but they will also be accompanied by the images of the two great artists playing from the other side of the world.  For Marcel Duchamp’s Grave (part of a series of homages I made) I used a freestanding plywood construction with openings of several monitors and its mirror piece on the floor.  Later I added the same structure for the ceiling and the opposite wall so that the image would flow all around the space.  And the soundtrack was simply the wind in the cemetery where he was buried in Rouen.  The homages began with the first one I did for my father when he passed away in 1975, and I also made one later for Nam June, Korean Grave in 1993.

Rail: With “Moving Image” technology, which for a while was only through 16mm film and never had the advantage of instant playback like the video technologies, there was an immediate attraction to artists because they could now experiment with all kinds of so-called “low-tech tricks” in their work.

Kubota: Right.  In the 1960’s Sony invented the Portapack, which was revolutionary; like what you’d just said, film was chemical, but video was more organic. To me Portapack was like a new paint brush. It was certainly in the same spirit as Fluxus, ‘do it yourself.’

Rail: Would it be fair to say that after your visit to Duchamp’s grave in Rouen in 1972—which you made a video of with your Portapack—you started to think more seriously about video sculpture?

Kubota: Absolutely. Also, it coincided with all the works I was putting together as a curator at the Anthology Film Archives. Every Saturday and Sunday I had to show the same single channel video tape, face to face, screened and facing two-way communication, over and over again; so I thought why not make it a video environment. Since I was trained as a sculptor, I could combine the moving image and object together like a sculpture. There’s another benefit to this form: since most viewers never quite stay and see the whole video, they may stay longer if they can move around it with more freedom and appreciation. 

Rail: How would you describe the difference between Nam June’s work and yours?  I mean, his background was in music whereas you were trained as a sculptor.

Kubota: Nam June’s work is experimental in a different way. You know, he was obsessed with the synthesizer. And since TV is already a sculpture in its solid, rectangular form, he wanted to pile many of them up like a pyramid. This was a different concept about sculpture. But now, too bad, because TV has become so thin like a mirror. I don’t know what you can make a sculpture out of now. The 70’s was a good time for all of us because we could make all kinds of things, video art, video sculpture, video environment, etc…

Rail: You have said that the invention of video has allowed both men and women to co-exist in the same space.

Kubota: Right.  It was equal to both men and women because it was new and fairly inexpensive and we all had the same access to it.

Rail: Did you get involved at all in the Feminist Art movement which arose out of the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s?

Kubota: I didn’t. Male or female, art is art. People can put me in the Feminist category all they want, but I didn’t think I can make any real contribution other than my work as an artist.

Rail: Yeah. Carolee Schneeman, for example, has been interpreted in all kinds of ways—as a pioneer of body art, or by way of performance, installation, video work and so on.  All of which did contribute a great deal to the feminist movement and the field of woman’s studies in general.   But she’s always insisted that she’s a painter. Anyway, did you have any contact with her?

Kubota: I participated in Snow, her anti-Vietnam War demonstration. I like her and her work very much.

Rail: Could you tell us when, in fact, you got to know Nam June?

Kubota: 1960’s, Canal Street loft; there was no elevator at the Fluxus building, and TVs and even the Portapack in those days were quite heavy, so it wasn’t easy to carry them up and down the stairs. I used to help George Macuinas and Nam June to do all of that carrying. I used to say to Nam June, why don’t you cover the TV box, it’s so ugly! He said no; no time, he didn’t really take my advice seriously. So I said, why don’t I do it? That’s when I used plywood to cover the TV box, partly because I didn’t want people to know what brand the TV was; I just want them to see it as a sculpture. Anyway, I got to know him well through all of those episodes. Eventually I left my first husband, David Behrman, and got married to Nam June.

Rail: Did your parents object to the fact that you were married to a Korean?

Kubota: From having a Jew to a Korean? Forget about it.  They gave up on me a long time ago. [laugh]

Rail: [laugh] Thinking back to what I’ve seen in your retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1991, several pieces—for instance, River (1979-81) and Niagra Falls, I, II and III (1985-87)—were inspired by the American natural landscape, while others—Rock Video Cherry Blossoms (1985), for example, which I thought was an awesome piece, Dry Mountain, Dry Water (1987-88) and Video Byobu I, II, and III (1988, 1991, 1991)—could be seen as an attempt to connect to your Japanese roots, no?

Kubota: Yeah.  It’s more like the universal spirits and learning about the alternative nature of philosophy. Why not combine nature and video, the natural organic and the mechanical industrial.

Rail: How did the idea behind the show get started?

Kubota: After Nam June had the stroke, I began to look after him until he made his new journey to another world. But then I wanted to share my own life with him, to the audience.

Rail: There are journeys that go forwards and those that go backwards, like the ones you made to Japan and later with Nam June to Korea. Could you talk more about that?

Kubota: It was in 1984, 36 years after he left his country and it was the first time for me to visit with him.  He always said that he was home grown. He was greatly informed by a Korean shamanist tradition, which is something that he shared with Joseph Beuys, whose plane got shot down during the second world war in the Crimea.  He was rescued by Tatars and they covered him in fat to keep him warm, wrapped by felt blanket. He was interested in tribalism after that.

Rail: Which also means a kind of hermeticism and alchemy.

Kubota: Yes, that too. But for the most part we from Asia don’t go against the wind, like the way western culture does, we just travel and wander with it. This is where we all share this kind of thinking.

Rail: Is the piece called Jogging Lady (1993) supposed to be a self portrait?

Kubota: Yes, I see the image of the jogging lady as a metaphor for women who work very hard, like myself. Actually the idea came from a Mother’s Day cover of the New Yorker.

Rail: How about Pissing Boy (1993)? Is it a portrait of Nam June?

Kubota: Everywhere in the world, especially in Asia, there are little boys pissing in some corner of the street. The image of a little boy pissing is like a water fountain, so that’s a sign for like a boy, but also a baby too. (laughs) That’s Nam June.

Rail: Jonas (Mekas) told me about an incident he saw in a video clip where President Clinton invited the Korean President Kim Doe-Jung, along with Nam June and many other distinguished Koreans to the White House.  It was in the middle of the Lewinsky crisis, and when Clinton came to shake his hand, Nam June stood up from his wheel chair and his pants fell down… Jonas said it was a deliberate act, others thought it was an accident. Could you set the record straight?

Kubota: I think it was an accident. Because you know, he lost so much weight after the stroke, so all of his pants were too big for him. Anyway, he didn’t need to stand up, but he did. Because he’s been a crazy performer, everyone said he planned it, but I don’t think he had the brain for that kind of thing at that point. I wasn’t there, because we had only two tickets,  and I asked Nam June’s assistant to go in my place, because I couldn’t push a wheel chair. Besides, Hillary was present in that ceremony and Nam June wouldn’t have done that in front of Hillary. Nam June loves Hillary!  But here in New York, everyone was laughing.

Rail: Either way, it still can be read as a classic Nam June happening.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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