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Interview with Shigeko Kubota

Japanese artists Shigeko Kubota and Shiomi Mieko arrived in New York in 1964 at the invitation of George Maciunas. Working in sculpture, performance, and video, Kubota was active in the avant-garde art community of Tokyo in the early 1960s, and then, after her move to the U.S., among the Fluxus artists in New York. In the interview with Miwako Tezuka, below, conducted for the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art and edited by post, she describes what it was like working with artists such as Kosugi Takehisa, the members of Hi Red Center and Group Ongaku (Group music), George Maciunas, and Marcel Duchamp.


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Shigeko Kubota

Artist Kubota Shigeko brings a singular sensibility to her extensive body of video sculptures, multi-media installations, and single-channel videos. Over her five-decade career,... Read more »
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Oral History Archives of Japanese Art

Established in 2006, the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art is a not-for-profit organization devoted to conducting interviews with individuals involved in the field of... Read more »
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Interview with Shigeko Kubota

Japanese artists Shigeko Kubota and Shiomi Mieko arrived in New York in 1964 at the invitation of George Maciunas. Working in sculpture, performance, and video, Kubota was active in the avant-garde art community of Tokyo in the early 1960s, and then, after her move to the U.S., among the Fluxus artists in New York. In the interview with Miwako Tezuka, below, conducted for the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art and edited by post, she describes what it was like working with artists such as Kosugi Takehisa, the members of Hi Red Center and Group Ongaku (Group music), George Maciunas, and Marcel Duchamp.

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Japanese artists Shigeko Kubota and Shiomi Mieko arrived in New York in 1964 at the invitation of George Maciunas. Working in sculpture, performance, and video, Kubota was active in the avant-garde art community of Tokyo in the early 1960s, and then, after her move to the U.S., among the Fluxus artists in New York. In the interview with Miwako Tezuka, below, conducted for the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art and edited by post, she describes what it was like working with artists such as Kosugi Takehisa, the members of Hi Red Center and Group Ongaku (Group music), George Maciunas, and Marcel Duchamp.

Oral History Interview with Shigeko Kubota, conducted by Miwako Tezuka, October 11, 2009, at Kubota’s residence in New York City

Oral History Archives of Japanese Art (www.oralarthistory.org)
Transcribed by Kanaoka Naoko
Translated by Reiko Tomii

The Japanese version of the interview can be found on the website of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art. In accordance with Japanese practice, Japanese names are generally written surname first. Exceptions are made for Japanese-born individuals who reside permanently abroad, or are well-known in the West.

Tezuka: You came to New York in 1964. What was Tokyo’s art scene like before that?

Kubota: I was friendly with Hi Red Center. When Naiqua Gallery in Shinjuku offered me an exhibition, I scattered love letters I had received on the floor. I bought [plenty of] old newspaper from a junkman and lined the floor. I have a photo of it. When you opened the door, you could immediately see the mountain of paper. I covered it with a white sheet and climbed to the top. I was also working on a welded-iron sculpture, and so I put it there, too. It’s a sculptural space in which you experience mountain climbing. But I got no reviews. Critics like Tōno [Yoshiaki] and Nakahara [Yūsuke] came to see my show, but they said nothing. It was 1963. I thought, “I will have no chance in Japan.” At any rate, I wanted to be famous.

Tezuka: At the time, how did Hi Red Center members respond to your work?

Kubota: They were very gentle. They were friends with Kosugi Takehisa1, and I came to know Group Ongaku (Group music). Kuni Chiya2 was my aunt. She practiced creative dance (sosaku buyō). She had a studio and needed the participation of musicians, and so she brought in Group Ongaku. When she held a dance participation event with light and moving images, I first met them. I learned from Kosugi that Yoko Ono was back in Japan. I also learned about Fluxus at that time.

Tezuka: That was 1962?

Kubota: It was 1963. Nam June Paik was back from Germany at the time. I was a junior high school teacher. [. . .] I went to school every day. When I came home, I made sculpture in my studio. I had an exhibition at Naiqua, and I showed my work at the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition. But no reviews whatsoever were written. “I will have no chance at all,” I thought. Then I heard of Fluxus. George Maciunas invited us. “Won’t you come to New York and join Fluxus?” he said. “We will have a concert at Carnegie Hall. If you come here on your own, I will take care of you here.” And so I said to Kosugi, “Let’s go.” He said, “Hmm . . . I’ll go,” and so I bought an airplane ticket and resigned from the school. But then Kosugi said, “I won’t go. You go ahead.” I had already quit teaching, and so I could not survive even if I were to stay. [. . .] Then Shiomi Mieko said, “I will go,” and so I said, “Let’s go together.” [. . .] We both came to New York in 1964. George Maciunas was so pleased that he came to meet us at JFK airport. Then he took us to Fluxus’s office on Canal Street. It was fun. Ay-O lived next door. Takako Saitō was there, too. [. . .] The address was 349 Canal Street. I had my start there after meeting Fluxus, and I have hung around this area ever since. [Laughs.] [. . .]

Tezuka: Let me backtrack a little bit. You came to know Group Ongaku members through your aunt. Were you interested in their music, in their experimentalism?

Kubota: Theirs were Happenings. It was not so much music as events. [. . .] They didn’t use scores. They improvised. That was good. I thought they were new. I thought what they did could somehow be related to sculpture. Performance and Happenings concern destruction, after all. They destroyed or threw something to destroy. They acted. Action. Action painting was popular then.

Tezuka: Did you do any performance at that time?

Kubota: I am not the type. [Laughs.]

Tezuka: No?

Kubota: I was in the audience, just cheering for them. [Laughs.]

Tezuka: But in 1965, at Fluxus’s summer festival, you performed Vagina Painting. Was this your first performance work?

Kubota: That was just a play. I defined myself as a sculptor. I thought I was different from them.

Tezuka: Then where did that performance work come from?

Kubota: Where did it come from? It was an action painting. I participated [in the festival] because they asked me to. Fluxus is about destruction, and their work disappears. Their work vanishes after the fact. I didn’t like that. Destruction is fine. In sculpture, too, I can smash a work, and it’s destruction results in a kind of form. From it, I can make my own renaissance, so to speak, and a new thing may be constructed. So destruction is fine, but I thought [what they did] was so ephemeral. [. . .] Sculpture requires a certain presence. Destruction still must leave something. Fluxus did something and it’s gone. They were musical in that sense. Their work was fleeting. Even if I worked with time, I wanted to have some sense of permanence. I wanted to have some sort of form. I wanted to envision some shape. With video, then, I thought of the unity of moving images and non-moving images.

Tezuka: So, that was your only performance?

Kubota: Yes. I was not so interested in performance. I did that piece because I was begged to do it. [. . .] Begged by Maciunas and Nam June. [. . .]

Tezuka: Your work developed simultaneously with Nam June Paik’s experimentation.

Kubota: We have done kind of similar things. People saw me do a similar thing and said, “You, too, are doing it.” To begin with, I was indeed interested in Nam June’s work. He conceived Happenings from music and experimented with sound. He studied with John Cage and destroyed sound. His composition was close to Dada, very avant-garde. If you translate that type of work to the visual field of sculpture, it leads to the world of Marcel Duchamp. Art exists in a flow of time. In video, time flows frame by frame. If I combine it with a still object, the resulting space will be like a museum, like a pantheon. If it is brought to a public space, it can heal people’s minds—even, say, at a busy airport. It contains many possibilities. I grew up in a Buddhist temple, and so I like Buddhist sculpture. It stimulates the imagination. I saw paintings of hell and paradise unfolding on the walls like a film script. I think that’s video. A mural. If a Buddhist mural moves here and there, then that’s video. To accompany that, I can make a Buddha statue or some object.

Tezuka: Indeed, a hand scroll does have movement in space and time. And so it can develop into video.

Kubota: Yes, like that, like traditional art. Insertion of traditional art into video involves analog time. We were born at the right time.

Tezuka: You mean equipment became available when you began your career.

Kubota: Yes. If it were today, it would have been too late. [Today] everything has been done. We came of age in between analog and digital. Nam June had a superb sense of timing. You know, he studied electronic music with John Cage. The next thing was video, which he said “you can do easily if you know physics.” And he had such a good tutor in Abe [Shūya]. [Laughs.]

Tezuka: So he knew technology would progress in that direction?

Kubota: Yes, indeed. I was watching him.

Tezuka: Changing the way you see things by changing a context. That’s the art of Duchamp. Is that why you were attracted to him?

Kubota: I was attracted to him because I met him.

Tezuka: In 1968? [. . .]

Kubota: When John Cage and Duchamp had a concert called Chess with Duchamp’s wife, Teeny, [. . .] I flew to Buffalo with my cheap Canon camera. It was winter. Duchamp and Teeny were on the same airplane with me. I thought, “Oh my.” Due to the severe snow and wind, the plane was unable to land in Buffalo and so it headed to Rochester. I thought, “It’s good.” I happened to have a copy of Bijutsu techō [the Japanese art magazine Art notebook], which carried a feature on Duchamp [the March 1968 issue].

Tezuka: You were an occasional reporter for the art magazine at the time.

Kubota: Yes. I needed money. Miyazawa Takeyoshi was the editor of Bijutsu techō. He was a very good man and asked me to “gather information and put together some photographs, too.” I showed Duchamp the feature and told him, “I did this.” It’s in Japanese, and I read the Duchamp feature. After landing in Rochester, we went to Buffalo by bus in the snow. The concert was held that night. At the concert, Duchamp’s bride’s clothes were ripped off until she was naked. I think Jasper Johns did the stage design.3

Tezuka: I see. The Large Glass [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)].

Kubota: And Merce Cunningham danced.

Tezuka: You mean, he danced with [the stage design after] The Large Glass.

Kubota: Yes. The stage design was The Large Glass, and Merce Cunningham danced. In the following week, from Buffalo, they were invited to Toronto.4 I took a photograph in Toronto. It shows Duchamp playing chess with John Cage.5 I totally forgot that I took this photo. It was in February or March—it was winter and very cold. In September of that year, Duchamp passed away. [. . .]

Tezuka: Did you know of Duchamp while in Japan?

Kubota: Yes, at school I studied about him in [art] history. But Pop art was the main topic, very fashionable. Of course, if we trace back, Duchamp was at the beginning of Pop. [. . .]

Kubota: When I went to Paris for Europe on 1/2 Inch a Day [1972], I thought, “Let’s drop by Rouen; Duchamp's grave is there.” I called Teeny Duchamp, who told me to “take a taxi to the grave after getting off the train.” I was still young then, and so I hauled a heavy Portapak to his family grave. The grounds were so huge I didn’t know where to go. His epitaph reads, “It’s always been the others who died.”6

Tezuka: Duchamp’s epitaph.

Kubota: Very, very witty. I was so glad to go there and see it. It was worth braving the fierce wind. I was so scared. I couldn’t speak a word of French. [. . .]

Tezuka: Some people keep travel diaries. For you, is video your diary?

Kubota: No. As a child, I wanted to be a novelist. When I began carrying a Portapak, I realized writing is something that I can do with the camera. [. . .]

Tezuka: I heard that Nam June Paik said you discovered the death of video through your video work. [. . .]

Kubota: Yes. It was very kind of him to say that, but video is like that to begin with. So I said, “Video is a ghost of yourself.” It’s like your shadow. It reveals your interior. It still exists after you die.

Tezuka: How many monitors did you use for Marcel Duchamp’s Grave [1972–75], twelve or eleven?

Kubota: Any number will do, from the floor to the ceiling.

Tezuka: If they can connect [the floor and the ceiling]?

Kubota: Yes. It happened to be like that. I just wanted to encase televisions. With that work, Nam June was furious. When I came home, he said [about the footage of the visit to Duchamp’s grave], “Your camera is moving.” I was carrying the heavy Portapak, I was exhausted after walking around looking for his grave, and I was shaken with emotion, and so the camera was shaking, too.

Tezuka: That means, you shot handheld?

Kubota: He [Nam June Paik] would shoot in his studio, using a tripod and a much sturdier camera. Mine was handheld and the image trembled. When I showed it at the Kitchen, Jonas Mekas said, “Shigeko’s camera is wonderful. The camera moves in the way the eye moves.”

Tezuka: I feel your handheld method is related to writing. [. . .] Another thing about you is that you were a collaborator, or a partner, of Nam June.

Kubota: Well, not a partner. I was his comrade.

Tezuka: Comrade.

Kubota: I never collaborated with him. We are very different, like water and oil. Even when I did my own stuff, people said, “She imitates Nam June.” I found it infuriating. So I headed further in the direction of Duchamp. When Nam June went populist, I went for high art. I couldn’t have done the same thing as Nam June. We were comrades in Fluxus. We were both Fluxus artists. However, with video, Nam June was experimental and dirty. Wires were sticking out from his early machine works. That’s why I went toward Duchamp. My work was very conceptual. I made boxes and put everything in them. Nam June encouraged me a lot. When I made Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase [1975–76],7 he asked, “What’s that?” Do you know the film in which the actress Takamine Hideko8 descended a staircase? I told him, “I connected that film and Duchamp’s staircase.” [. . .] He said, “Americans are too simple to understand it. Don’t do it.” But I did it. Then it became a sensation at Documenta [in 1977]. Barbara London was the first to visit me at home and said, “I would like to buy your stairs for The Museum of Modern Art.” Nam June was stunned. It was I who had earned cash money.

Cri 141850
Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase. Shigeko Kubota. 1976. Super-8 film transferred to video and color-synthesized video (color, silent), monitors, and plywood. 66 1/4 x 30 15/16 x 67" (168.3 x 78.6 x 170.2 cm). Gift of Margot and John Ernst, Agnes Gund, and Barbara Pine. The Museum of Modern Art © 2013 Shigeko Kubota

Tezuka: Yes, it was the first video sculpture that MoMA acquired. [. . . ]

Tezuka: You first saw John Cage perform his music at the Sogetsu Kaikan hall.

Kubota: Yes, when he came to Tokyo.

Tezuka: What about Cage was such a big influence on you?

Kubota: His conducting. For example, when he used clocks, [I was very impressed by] his action, certainly.

Tezuka: His action?

Kubota: Not the regular conducting of an orchestra. Like clock hands moving, or cooking. Or that portable radio, you know?

Tezuka: A transistor radio, you mean?

Kubota: Yes, radio was popular back then. He turned it on for music and also cooked in the background.

Tezuka: So you mean, it was part of the action?

Kubota: His action was beyond the idea of music. He turned everyday life into art. With Fluxus, I, too, wanted to turn everyday life into art. And so, my video is about everyday images, like my own diary, but I make it into art. Narrative makes a dialogue. [. . .]

Tezuka: When you came to New York in 1964, [you arrived] on July 4. Was there any significance to that date?

Kubota: It was just an accident. I was surprised, too, for I didn’t know anything about the Fourth of July.

Tezuka: So you didn’t know it was Independence Day?

Kubota: That's right. I went to a YMCA on Lexington and Fifty-something Street. George put Shiomi and me there. The cleaners who were there went home after greeting us: “Hello. Have a nice weekend. Happy holiday!” There were fireworks, too. I finally realized, “It’s Independence Day.” That’s how little I knew about America. All I knew was Pop art in New York. That’s it. I came to New York because of Fluxus and Pop art. I didn’t know much about American history.

Tezuka: Exactly one year after that, you performed your Vagina Painting. Was there any meaning to that? Or was it a performance just for the festival?

Kubota: That was because George organized a Fluxus event in Washington Square Park called “Washington Visiting Fluxus.” Fluxus organized several festivals.

Tezuka: The summer festival.

Kubota: Charlotte Moorman had done the New York Avant-Garde Festival, and so George was competing with her. It was George who did the first Fluxus events, but Charlotte Moorman got a budget from the city and began her Avant-Garde Festival. The two fought, and George began doing his own festivals.

Tezuka: So he happened to organize that event on that day, and so you performed on that day.

Kubota: He said, “Do it.” I didn’t want to do it, to tell you the truth. How to explain this . . . as a child, I studied the piano. My mother played the piano.

Tezuka: Yes, of course.

Kubota: But I could not play the piano onstage no matter how hard I practiced beforehand. I had stage fright. That’s what I had. And so I decided it would be better to paint or sculpt, for either one I could do alone. I didn’t like doing something while other people were watching me. Onstage, I froze while playing the piano. Even during the rehearsal.

Tezuka: Despite [your stage-fright problem], you gave a shocking performance.

Kubota: Not really. Other people’s works were as shocking.

Tezuka: How did the audience react?

Kubota: The audience was only ten or so people. The photography of the event made it look powerful. George took that photograph. No more than thirty people saw it.

Tezuka: Were they all artists or friends of Fluxus?

Kubota: They were all friends of friends, most of them related to Fluxus. There was no other audience. It was summer, it was hot. There was no air conditioning. Very few came to Fluxus’s events. Nowadays, Fluxus can fill the whole house. After George’s death, Fluxus became famous, but back then, it wasn't at all.

Tezuka: Then, how about other radical performances, like Nam June Paik’s body-based works?

Kubota: Claes Oldenburg did something like that.

Tezuka: Did you know these body-based performances and actions?

Kubota: Yes, but I was not so much . . .

Tezuka: Not so much interested?

Kubota: No, not at all. I was so disappointed. I thought Fluxus was too concerned about small things.

Tezuka: Rather, you wanted to make objects as your work?

Kubota: Yes, I did, but I was interested in George’s life. He had a strange personality. He would later buy a farm, saying, “I will make a Fluxus Farm.” He bought that horrible run-down house in Connecticut.

Tezuka: That’s right.

Kubota: I followed him there. I thought nobody would follow him. Nam June also said, “Then let's buy a chicken house,” a dirty place with chickens. George’s house was like a haunted house. The previous owner killed himself. It wasn't a suicide. You know, he was a stunt pilot; he flew a propeller plane. He made an error and his plane crashed. Then he died. All his clothing was left there. Pilot suits and business suits and gun belts and such. They all fit George perfectly. Even the shoes. The house was surrounded by a vast farm. I was born in Niigata, and so I was good at farming. I went there to plant beans and flowers, and I enjoyed it. That’s what George bought to “create a Fluxus Farm.”

Tezuka: So the idea was to live and survive on the land?

Kubota: Yes. He bought an old car and drove it super fast on the highway. I was always seated next to him, and I was scared to death. His driving was terrible. Barbara Moore, who has a lot of Fluxus material, and Peter Moore also came. We ate together. At that time, George was married to a woman named Billie [Hutching]. And so she was there, too. We cooked all together. And the meals we cooked were masterpieces. George cooked something totally inedible. [Laughs.]

Tezuka: Did he have any special recipes?

Kubota: A lot of funny stuff. He would get half-spoiled yogurt from a store for free. Many hippies lived in that area, and so yogurt was popular. But yogurt tends to spoil quickly if you don’t eat it immediately. He would get spoiled yogurt. He would slap it onto chicken to make an Indian dish.

Tezuka: That sounds rather dangerous.

Kubota: Yes, indeed. We frequently suffered from diarrhea. But Fluxus was like diarrhea. Fluxus slapped diarrhea in your face. I am so happy that I got to know him while he was alive. Thanks to George, I came to know Jonas Mekas. Thanks to Jonas, I became a video curator at Anthology Film Archives. Thanks to Nam June, I came to do video and sculpture at museums. Everything began with George; everything began when I came to New York. I still keep George’s photo over there. I put some water every morning in front of it [a Japanese custom of commemoration for a family member]. I give him French water. [Laughs.]

Tezuka: Special water?

Kubota: No, the kind I drink. [Laughs.] Evian.

Tezuka: Thank you for talking to me today.


Kosugi Takehisa, born in 1938, is a Japanese composer and violinist who took part in the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s.


Kuni Chiya was a student of the dancer Kuni Masami.


The performance was Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time with stage design by Jasper Johns, after Duchamp’s The Large Glass.


In fact, the Toronto performance took place in February; the one in Buffalo, in March.


John Cage’s musical performance Reunion.


"D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent," or "Besides, it's always the others who die."


Kubota’s commentary on Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase is available on MoMA’s website.


When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960, directed by Naruse Mikio.

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