Readier Made than Done, a New Moon Rising
There is an immediately new and noticeable curatorial energy affirming itself in these two major exhibitions taking place at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art/MOT. Not only is there a truly international dimension centering each show, but the quality and creativity of the hangings, in spite of an institution that has very much of an ‘eighties’ sense of space, feels ambitious, informed, and professional.
This is the largest Christian Marclay exhibition ever held in Japan, with examples of works spanning his forty-year long career. The artist was fortunate to be able to attend the opening and give a press talk afterwards. Just a few days later, the Omicron variant appeared and Japan closed all its borders. Marclay is very much an artist known for two key practices, sound & music, and moving image works. The first, unfolding during the eighties, saw him as a composer for turntable works, sound performances which included breaking vinyl records and putting them back together using different shards before playing them. While such acts connected him to artists such as John Cage and Nam June Paik—who famously destroyed 78rpm’s without bothering to pick up the pieces—the use of the turntable located him in New York City, when the hip-hop scene was emerging. Although Marclay collaborated with NYC artists, it wasn’t with anyone outside of Manhattan… Those were post-punk days, and those of Glen Branca; a number of us were fortunate to see performances by the artist and Sonic Youth, John Zorn, and later Elliott Sharp. He released remarkable recordings, exploring music histories and being a pioneering figure of a type of collage that would later become commodified by others who came up with the mash-up. During that same decade, Marclay began doing visual works using record jackets and deconstructing the meaning of each, using vinyls in patterns that recalled Sonia Delaunay. This would lead to the concept of using the musical partition as a formal device, expanding the possibilities of collage, and leading him to moving image editing.
All of this is both present and alluded to in the show; it is unfortunate however that audiences are unable to get an aural sense of that history. While sharing headphones is next to impossible during these sanitary circumstances, a QR code and a website with a selection of recordings would have been of service.
His 2011 The Clock, for which he won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Biennale, a work shown at a previous edition of the Yokohama Triennial, is not included here, but the 2002 seminal video projection Quartet is there to point to the impact his meticulous use of film samples and rigorous sound cutting would have on countless artists who came after. The MOT show however offers a selection of recent works, paintings, large scale woodcuts that recall the methods used in early Anselm Kiefer assemblages, but instead of portraying the titans of classical music, Marclay does cut-ups of manga images. He does something similar with traditional scrolls, which manage to be both clever and decorative. They all lead to a very different media installation, an immersive experience of onomatopoeias on four walls, sound words mostly taken from comic books, sounds of explosions, of electronic devices, of kicks and punches, not unlike the invasive assault of daily digital media advertising surrounding us.
The overt modernist qualities of his art, used to deconstruct all manners of mediums, are in full display, firmly locating him in a different era. But the tools are there, and some of them have really aged. Newer versions are already here, to be used for other fabricated histories. When I got back home, I put on his records.
In 2015, MOT held a Yoko Ono exhibition, From My Window; six years later, her friend from the Fluxus days, Shigeko Kubota, the one-time vice-chairman of that group of artists, finally gets a show in which the letter V is as over-prominent as it was in the artist’s work. Viva Video! is a model of historical curating performed correctly. The first gallery abundantly assembles documentation of her work and presence in New York City, where she arrived in 1964. A year later, she would perform for the first time her Vagina Painting, a gendered work that threatened a number of her male peers within the movement. By 1970, she was one of the first artists using a Sony Portapak. Her early videos, shown with those of other women artists, were screened in various NYC venues, notably at the Kitchen during the Vasulka years. She would also, like Woody & Steina, share a fascination for New Mexico (where she went to shoot on the Navajo reservation) though she never moved there. The tapes did not articulate feminist theories though they were among those claiming a place in video’s nascent history.
In 1977, she married another member of Fluxus, Nam June Paik, who by then was on his way to being recognized as the father of video art. Which is not to say that Kubota was interested in being its mother. Unlike Paik’s work, Kubota made far less use of found images, nor did she develop concepts of media resistance. She was never as preoccupied with the possibilities of postproduction and controlling the properties of the video medium. She preferred to shoot, to record the daily lives of those around her. The second space in this exhibition, a hallway leading to the next gallery, is used to show the intimate nature of some of her single channel works, including My Father.
As with most of the artists around her, she had made her way towards Marcel Duchamp, whom she had met in the 1960s; her Duchampiana series began in the 1970s and would bring her international success, notably her Nude Descending a Staircase from 1976, a video sculpture accompanied by a celebrated text: Video is vacant apartment/video is vacation of Art/Viva Video. Her following video sculptures took her on a buddhist path, as well as leading her to further international groups shows, including the Documenta and the Venice Biennale. They are at once joyous and peaceful pieces, seemingly unburdened by questions. She did not appear to achieve this by turning towards an economy of means; her later works were both expansive and more traditionally sculptural. As was also the case with many of Paik’s works, Shigeko Kubota was not making installations.
The hunger often present in the work of artists like Yoko Ono or Nam June Paik doesn’t manifest itself in what Kubota does. It may be more about contemplation and companionship. In this moment, when art is often expected to engage and stand against, Viva Video! ends with her video Sexual Healing, which sees Nam June Paik undergoing rehabilitation treatment after his stroke; he smiles, flirts with and drops a kiss on the cheeks of the care givers. Had Shigeko Kubota given up so much? To have the last work of a major exhibition be about her husband?
Eugene Studio, founded by Eugene Kangawa, now in his early thirties, is having its first museum solo exhibition at MOT. It is a combination of 2D works of various dimensions and mediums and relatively large-scale installations. While the installations are somewhat straightforward, the mixed-media paintings switch flexibly between paper, canvas, and brass with a sense of calmness and elegance. At first glance, some works might seem rather decorative, whether it’s a gradation of turquoise dye, a textured white painting, or a polytych of oil on brass reminiscent of a gold-foil folding screen. The subtlety in the choice of materials and the delicate use of technique rise to the foreground as we get closer. Zooming in a little bit more, the audience will reach a level of care for the present world, for intellect and sensibility, as well as the divinity dwelled underneath. Death and life as abstract yet warm forms are frequent subjects in Eugene Studio’s work. They are handled lightly but reverently, without a hint of bitterness or sarcasm. The whole exhibition space is thus made into a chamber for introspection via the journey of mediating about one’s relationship with the world.
Shigeko Kubota’s massive retrospective travelled from her hometown Niigata to Osaka then finally Tokyo in the span of a year in 2021. While this coincides with the trend in the Japanese art museum community to begin taking into consideration the issue of gender equality in exhibition planning, it is also delightful to see this pioneer of video art return to the shores of her home country of Japan after a life-time stay in the United States. The exhibition is organized chronologically, providing abundant personal materials such as letters and photos to portrait the artist as a real person, who encounters, experiments, excites, grieves. She is herself, curious and imaginative, as well as the loving daughter of her father, a friend and comrade of her peer avant-garde artists, an admirer of Duchamp, and Nam June Paik’s great love… Unlike some of her contemporaries, she never pulled away from emotions, feelings, or nature while jumping at the chance of using television/video technique as an artistic medium. The body of Kubota’s work is multifaceted, just like the multi-channel installations Korean Grave (1993) and Niagara Falls (1985/2021), and as is her own life. The curation of the show is honest and loyal to all these facets, including the dissonances and contestations, a method that posits itself as different from MOT’s last retrospective exhibition which looked at the art of Dumb Type.