When the Sony Portapak arrived in the 1970s, Shigeko Kubota seized upon video as a medium that could mutate, recombine and transmute reality itself. The artist, trained as a sculptor and moonlighting as a critic, created “video diaries” that—even in the vlogging era 50 years later— remain formally experimental. “Liquid Reality” at the Museum of Modern Art, her first institutional solo show in a quarter century, showcases her shimmering experiments in memoir, dislocation and illegibility.
Kubota presciently realized that video’s potential lay not only in its capacity to express realities, but also in its ability to distort, dissolve and present alternative possibilities. “The video part is my mirror for my memory, of my life,” Kubota told an interviewer in 1983, “but the object is creating my creation.” Her Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1976), for instance, transforms Duchamp’s iconic painting into a video-sculpture, with monitors embedded in each steep step of a seven-foot wooden staircase. In fact, many of her videos are encased in plywood structures. Here, wood is activated by video, its grain becoming hallucinogenic and mobile, like television static.
Elsewhere delirious experiments verge into still more media: mirrors, metal and water. Niagara Falls I (1985), a four-track video work with screens ranging in size from a monitor to a phone are diagonally inset into a mirrored surface above a pool of water. The liquid absorbs facets of the works and visitors while throwing diaphanous shapes across the walls. The piece is set against a multiwork soundtrack that relays wind sweeping through the gorges of the Grand Canyon, the roar of Niagara Falls, the sound of water falling in real time. A phantasmagoria of experience awaits visitors: the shadowy shape of one’s self reflected; angles and heights only accessible by holding one’s camera at an unnatural angle; and finally, works that shimmer steadily before the naked eye, evading the camera entirely—ever shifting, ever elusive. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Shigeko Kubota. Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1976). Standard-definition video and Super 8mm film transferred to video (color, silent; 5:21 min.), four cathode-ray tube monitors, and plywood. 66 1/4 × 30 15/16 × 67 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Margot and John Ernst, Agnes Gund, and Barbara Pine, 1981. Artwork © 2021 Estate of Shigeko Kubota / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Digital image © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Denis Doorly