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.
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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.