Video art emerged during the late 1960s as the product of new portable video technology that allowed individuals to easily own and carry their own recording equipment. Favored in avant-garde and experimental art circles, the medium prompted investigations into technology’s increasingly fluid relationship with the self, the body, language, and time itself. Here are three Japanese women artists who were at the forefront of video art and pioneered the medium in the 1970s, spearheading its development in Japan and internationally.
1. Shigeko Kubota: The Mother of Video Art
Overshadowed in the past by her husband and the father of video art Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota (1937–2015) is now often referred to as the mother of video art herself. Her first retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image in 1991 recognized her as a pioneering figure in the development of video as an artistic medium. In the 1960s Tokyo’s avant-garde art scene, she collaborated with collectives like Hi-Red Center and Group Ongaku. After meeting avant-garde artists like John Cage and Yoko Ono, she was invited by the Fluxus founder George Maciunas to come to New York. She moved there in 1964.
Fluxus, the most innovative and influential avant-garde art movement of the 1960s in New York, provided an environment that allowed her creative freedom without the prejudice and limitations that existed in Japan. Here, she started exploring video art, collaborating with her first husband David Behrman’s music collective Sonic Arts Union, and participating in festivals of avant-garde and video art in the early 1970s.
Thanks to her Japanese connections, she was able to access the latest video technologies before they came to the West. Popularized in the early 1970s, the new Sony Portapak (Video densuke in Japanese), a portable, battery-powered video tape recorder, allowed artists to see their recording in real-time and immediately play it back. Kubota carried her Portapak everywhere, documenting her everyday life. Soon, she developed a prolific video practice, mainly dividing her work into video diaries and video sculptures.
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Her autobiographical narrative works titled Broken Diary depict her professional and personal life from the 1970s onwards. Kubota shot the first chapter of her single-channel diaries, A Day at the California Institute of the Arts (1970–71), during her time at CalArts. For her video sculpture Video Poem, she used a Paik/Abe synthesizer, which provides abstract colorization on video, to manipulate and layer images.
She captured her European travels in Europe on 1/2 a Day (1972), culminating in Paris, with an homage to the grave of one of her greatest inspirations, Marcel Duchamp. A mixture of synthesized images and documentary footage, Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky (1973) sees her living for a month with a Navajo family on a reservation in Chinle, Arizona. In Broken Diary: My Father (1973–75), a deeply personal narration of her mourning her father’s death, she used video and television for her ritual of processing the loss.
Kubota’s video sculptures combined her formal training in sculpture with her interest in video art and stemmed from her desire to transform the fragility of video into something permanent and monumental. Her references ranged from Duchamp to nature. Her first video sculpture series was Duchampiana, with Marcel Duchamp’s Grave (1972–1975/2019) being the first work, followed by other pieces inspired by Duchamp’s art. Based on Duchamp’s 1912 painting, Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (1975–76/83) is a wooden staircase with four encased monitors showing the repeated movement of a female nude model walking down a staircase.
In Three Mountains (1976–79), the artist explored her relationship with nature. This is a mountain-shaped object, that combines the format of a diary with sculptures. In this piece, the artist reflected on her time spent in the Grand Canyon, and the Arizona and New Mexico deserts. In Niagara Falls (1985/2021) piece there are 10 inverted television monitors cascading down over a reflecting pool, expressing the artist’s belief in the increasingly symbiotic relationship between nature and technology.
In 1996, Kubota’s practice came to a halt as she dedicated herself to taking care of her husband who suffered a stroke. Her last work, a video diary, reflected her love for Nam June Paik. At the artist’s request, the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation was established after her passing in 2015. It is situated at the couple’s historic home on Mercer Street in New York.
2. Fujiko Nakaya: Promoter of Video Art
Fujiko Nakaya (b. 1933, Sapporo, Hokkaido) is mostly known for her fog sculptures that have graced a variety of locations around the world since the late 1980s. Nakaya moved to the United States at a young age with her physicist father Ukichiro. As her father prepared for his first expedition to Greenland to study ice and snow, Nakaya moved to Paris and Madrid, to study painting, after graduating in Fine Arts from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1957. Her father’s influence played a major role in the development of her artistic career, particularly his belief that the realization of scientific truths depended on collaboration between human beings and nature.
Nakaya met prominent American experimental artists in the 1960s. She worked with choreographer Deborah Hay for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a festival of collaborative performances between artists and Bell Laboratories engineers. The event was organized in 1967 by Julie Martin, engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, founders of the art collective Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). In 1969 Nakaya established the collective’s Tokyo branch. She was later invited by Klüver to collaborate at the Expo ’70 in Osaka, where she made her first fog sculpture for the Pepsi Pavilion.
In the 1970s, Nakaya became a key figure in Japan’s experimental video art scene, contributing to its development, and connecting North American and Japanese artists. Encouraged by Canadian video artist and E.A.T. member Michael Goldberg, Nakaya started working with video. In 1972, she teamed up with Goldberg and avant-garde artist and theorist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi and organized Japan’s first video art exhibition Video Communication: Do-It-Yourself-Kit in Tokyo. As a result, Yamaguchi, Nakaya, and ten other artists founded the video art collective Video Hiroba, whose members later exhibited in Barbara London’s 1979 show Video from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto at MoMA.
Her early work Friends of Minamata Victims—Video Diary (1972) captured protesters at sit-in demonstrations at Tokyo’s Chisso Corporation against the company’s mercury pollution of waters.
Nakaya also made video sculptures and installations, like her 1973 collaboration with Hakudo Kobayashi and Yuji Morioka for Old People’s Wisdom — Cultural DNA, an interactive installation that collected video interviews with the elderly in care homes and community centers. The artist’s aim was to share their wisdom. Other notable works include the Hands series, which features Statics of an Egg (1973), an uncut video recording that shows the artist trying to make two eggs stand upright, and Coordination: Right Hand/Left Hand (1979), which shows the action of sharpening a pencil with a knife.
After establishing Processart Inc in 1979 in order to distribute video artworks, Nakaya opened the country’s first video art gallery called Video Gallery SCAN, named by her friend and collaborator Bill Viola. The independent, artist-run organization launched the career of young video and media artists and promoted international exchanges and collaboration before closing in 1992. The gallery hosted numerous events, including the exhibition series SCAN FOCUS which featured works by Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, and Mako Idemitsu. SCAN team also organized the Japan International Video Television Festival at Spiral, Tokyo (in 1987, 1989, and 1993), showcasing works by artists like Shigeko Kubota, Dumb Type, and Marina Abramovic.
Her most notable works include Fog Sculpture #08025: F.O.G. (1998) which was made for Robert Rauschenberg’s solo show at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and London Fog (2017) made through collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani. In 2019, Tokyo’s Art Tower Mito held Resistance of Fog, her first major retrospective in Japan, featuring a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Min Tanaka. Her exhibition Nebel Leben (2022) at Haus Der Kunst in Berlin included two new fog works created for the museum.
3. Mako Idemitsu: The Feminist of Video Art
Mako Idemitsu (b. 1940, Tokyo) is a pioneer of experimental Japanese video art and film. Her father Sazō Idemitsu, founder of the oil and petroleum company Idemitsu Kōsan, was an avid art collector. Traditionally Confucian and patriarchal, her father had the tendency to deny his wife and daughters their individuality and independence. Idemitsu’s relationship with him was problematic. The artist ended up disowned by her father after choosing to live in California.
In 1962, Idemitsu graduated in Japanese history from Tokyo’s Waseda University, where her frustration with her professors’ misogyny added to her feminist sentiments.
In 1964, Idemitsu started studying at Columbia University in New York, where she felt free to explore the city’s multicultural environment without the baggage of her family’s ties to the Japanese art scene. After a brief stint in Europe, she moved to Santa Monica, California, where she lived from 1965 to 1972, marrying the American artist Sam Francis in 1966. Her dreams of freedom from Confucian and patriarchal control were soon crushed, as she realized that even among the hippy community and countercultures of 1960s California, a certain degree of male chauvinism was inescapable. She and Francis had two children, Osamu and Shingo, the latter becoming a painter like his father.
Searching for a role outside that of a wife and mother, Idemitsu found inspiration working with a Super 8 camera, later expanding into the 16mm realm. She developed an interest in feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her 1972 Woman’s House captured the Womanhouse, an art installation and performance space organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, co-founders of CalArts’ Feminist Art Program. Her seminal feminist video What a Woman Made (1973) speaks about the troubling roles, responsibilities, and expectations of women. Like many of her video works, it functions as a critique of the treatment of women in Japanese society.
Idemitsu was aware that her works would probably be difficult to understand for English-speaking audiences not familiar with the Japanese language and culture. Thus, after moving to Tokyo for a year with Francis and their two children in 1973, she decided to stay behind when her husband went home. Even though she felt more repressed in Tokyo, her film practice allowed her to express her feelings better in her home country than in the United States. She produced her At Santa Monica (1973-5) and At Any Place (1975-8) series, using the films she shot in the United States. In Japan, she could also free herself from the label of Sam Francis’ wife and be her own individual artistic self. She soon started collaborating with local video artists and got involved in the Video Hiroba collective with Fujiko Nakaya. Canadian artist Michael Goldberg became her frequent collaborator and served as the Director of Photography for many of her videos.
Rooted in feminist thought, Idemitsu’s work reflects on gender roles, the nature of personal identity, and the self. She also focused on the modern family of Japan and its role in the oppression of Japanese women. She also depicted scenes of domestic abuse, harassment, and rape in the domestic sphere. French existentialist philosopher, social theorist, and feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir was one of Idemitsu’s major influences. Her work Kae, Act like a Girl (1993) was inspired by de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
The action in her videos usually revolves around family life and domestic interactions. There are also disembodied forms. For example, in her Great Mother trilogy, the disembodied women are presented as the protagonist’s mothers and super-ego. They personify a lifetime of learned cultural values and societal norms and are thus an internalized ideal from which the protagonist cannot escape. Another Day of A Housewife (1977) was inspired by the artist’s own frustration over being a housewife. The award-winning Kiyoko’s Situation (1989) reflects upon her struggles to find her artistic voice, despite the controlling patriarchal presence in her life.