Where does video live? On the screen, or a tape, a memory chip, the hard organs of your phone? Perhaps its home is now the cloud, or a warehouse of supercooled servers humming in the Arizona desert. In the work of pioneering video artist Shigeko Kubota, the search for such an objective home seems fruitless. Her filmic sculptures seem to suggest that video lives in the moment of transmission. In the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective exhibition Liquid Reality, her experiments with the malleability of the moving image are given concrete form.
Reflection and refraction dominate in the show, which pulls mostly from Kubota’s work from the mid-1970s through the mid-80s, when she was a programmer at Anthology Film Archives and engaging in ramshackle experiments with her Fluxus compatriots. In works like River (1979-81), with monitors that hang above a metallic trough of continuously flowing water, or Three Mountains (1976-1979), in which garbled footage of the American West echoes from glittering mirrored veins embedded in plywood constructs, the all-important screen is all but obscured, its subjects only legible as swirling, fractal reflections. In Video Haiku — Hanging Piece (1981), the act of seeing is made reflexive and infinite with a cathode-tube monitor that swings pendulum-like over a curved mirror, displaying closed-circuit footage of the viewer on the very object they’re watching.
These videos as sculptures are probably Kubota’s most enduring achievements. They position video as weighty and monumental, deserving of more than a bright rectangle in a darkened room. But they also gleefully tear the medium to its composite parts. Free-wheeling deconstruction was a core Fluxus tenet, and as the loose community’s so-called “vice president” (a title she was given by co-founder George Maciunas), Kubota’s work is often viewed within its framework. But that movement was largely one of ephemerality and irreverence, its adherents seeking to dissolve fine art in the solvent of everyday life, through ad-hoc Happenings and anti-commercial pursuits. Liquid Reality, with its bulky assemblages and science experiment tinkering with particularities of light, feels adjacent to such concerns. These are the creations of a lifelong video adherent, not so much a gallery art agnostic.
In some ways, Kubota’s inquiries feel more aligned with the Pictures Generation, who were beginning to explore the effects of mass media and the broadcasted image during the same stretch of time the exhibition covers. Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1976), her wry homage/subversion of the famous work by her hero Duchamp, certainly feels akin to the feminist-forward reappropriation of Pictures artists like Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler. The piece’s inclusion in a show otherwise concerned with landscapes and reflection feels instructive.
The show’s title is taken from a quote in which Kubota affirms her pursuit of a different sort of artistic dissolution than many of her Fluxus ilk. “Once cast into video’s reality, infinite variation becomes possible,” she once wrote. “Not only weightlessness, but total freedom to dissolve, reconstruct, mutate all forms, shape, color, location, speed, scale … liquid reality.” It calls to mind Pictures acolyte and fellow multichannel maven Gretchen Bender, who called media “a cannibalistic river” that absorbs without consciousness or intention. But Kubota seems to take pleasure and even solace in video’s unending flow. That’s why a retrospective on Kubota feels so right for this moment. Her work posits that video can refract and distend across contexts, becoming a garbled object ripe for misreadings and semi-coherent glimpses. It can live nowhere and yet feel like it’s everywhere — meaning nothing at all but echoing, refracting, repeating, looking so tantalizing and beautiful.
Shigeko Kubota: Liquid Reality is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, New York) through January 1, 2022.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.