Shigeko Kubota, a Japanese-born artist who worked in sculpture, video and installation and was married to Nam June Paik (1932–2006), died in New York on July 23. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Tokyo University, Shigeko Kubota moved to the United States where she studied at New York University and the New School for Social Research in the mid ’60s. Kubota encountered video through her involvement with the New York-based Fluxus Movement, which included Nam June Paik, Allison Knowles, Allan Kaprow, and George Maciunas.
With an emphasis on performance and play, Fluxus artists aimed to bring art and life together, collapsing the traditional divisions between mediums and undermining the authority of the artist through collaboration and audience participation.
Kubota 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.
The audience is present while the artist is creating his/her artwork, an interaction happens between the artist and the audience. The woman’s body is no longer passive, but active and creative, and leaves behind his passive shadowy existence of a model for the mostly male painter and surface for sexual projection. Turning against conventional art movements Kubota applies new ways of expression confronting the public therewith. Here the concept of art undergoes a substantial change, since the painting lies in front of the artist on the floor, a way of painting adopted by Jackon Pollock, too. In the literature Kubota’s work is described as rejoinder to Pollock’s “Drip Paintings”, which because of their dripping, splashing form remind of ejaculate. In contrast, in Kubota’s “Vagina Painting” the emphasize is put on the female process of gestural painting.
Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles all collaborated on performance-based works that often took common activities as their material. These Fluxus artists believed that the acts of preparing food, marrying, smiling, playing games, or rustling a newspaper were forms of “social music,” making life itself a ready-made work of art. Solo performances by women were not always playful, however, and some took on more intimate or confrontational tones. Women involved in Fluxus have primarily characterized their experience in these events as liberating, as giving them a sense of artistic independence. However, the images of women in these early catalogues and magazines—all of which were edited by men—tell multiple, contradictory stories of artistic agency and vulnerability that feminists and art historians continue to debate.
Fluxus performers staged their bodies in social, interactive spaces, drawing attention to everyday tasks, movements, and objects. Women artists who made explicit and erotic uses of their bodies in their work sometimes sensed disapproval from the group.
Following her early Fluxus performances and objects, Kubota began the pioneering career in video art and installation in which she continues to investigate the landscapes of the body and the natural world. In this homage to her mentor Marcel Duchamp, Kubota deconstructs the moving body of filmmaker Sheila McClaughlin to produce a new iteration of Duchamp’s painting of the same title.