The small but choice 'Gazing Back: Shigeko Kubota and Mary Lucier', is the first video installation in the 'Collection in Context' series at the Whitney Museum. It announces at once a general art historical and theoretical concern: the gaze as a subjective and historical subject. Kubota and Lucier artists long identified with expanding the medium of video into the field of sculpture are represented here by works that appropriate the Modernist icons of Marcel Duchamp and Claude Monet, reconsidering their work in the context of gender, cultural identity and the formal and conceptual properties of video itself.
The exhibition consists of one installation by Lucier and two by Kubota: Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase and Meta-Marcel: Window, the former after Duchamp's eponymous painting, the latter after his wood-framed French window sculpture Fresh Widow. Lucier's installation, entitled Ohio at Giverny, was inspired by Monet's late series of luminously sunlit paintings produced at his country retreat in Giverny. Created before the ubiquitous post-Modernist appropriations of the mid-80s (all three videos were made from 1976-83), these installations appear refreshing today; their art historical commentary is unburdened by hermetic critical thinking, especially in relation to the subsequent surge of post-structuralist Duchamp studies.
This is not to ignore the importance of critical theory or politics, or some of the more significant and positive legacies of post-structuralist theory, but to suggest that the formal may play just as central a role in the construction of vision and visuality. Visuality, however, is not in jeopardy here as the interpretative and subjective gaze of both Kubota and Lucier is expressed through the heightened aesthetic and perceptual conditions of video. In surprising ways, their installations manage to critique the Modernist ethos while, at the same time, embracing its formal and conceptual models.
The use of appropriation by both artists is based on an understanding of the gaze as that which renders the subject elusive and uncapturable. For Lucier, that context is inflected by a personal narrative of remembrance, and functions commemoratively (Ohio in Giverny ends with a memorial 'à mon oncle' to her Ohio-born uncle and his French wife). Comprising seven monitors set horizontally in a continuous curving wall, the video installation projects beautiful images which flicker between the blank interstices of wall that separate the screens; collectively they constitute the mysterious memory-landscape of Ohio in Giverny. Across this temporal and spatial panorama, from Ohio to France, the viewer is breathlessly transported through the past. Lucier maximises the capability of video to reflect a sense of consciousness that is always trying to narrow the distance between subjectivity and the concreteness of place a lingering, ephemeral memory that also speaks of the contradictory state of displacement.
If 'Gazing Back...' represents an appropriation of the canon of Western art history, it is not just a reclamation based on gender but also one that arises out of the need of those 'outside' the historical mainstream to re-engage some of its formal and conceptual developments. Kubota's wall text, which accompanies Meta-Marcel, suggests her own, perhaps complementary, role in the primary interactive agenda that she assigns to her medium and its 'interface' with history: 'Video is the window of yesterday. Video is the window of tomorrow'.
Although the window of Meta-Marcel opens unlike Duchamp's original, which was closed, its leather-covered panes opaque its transparency is a tease, revealing only the unrelenting static of video 'snow'. The work's referential scheme in terms of what one sees remains abstract, until, by chance, its ulterior iconography (and punning title) becomes fully understood when one learns that the artist met Duchamp during a snow storm while both were en route to Buffalo in the year of his death. Similarly, in Duchampiana: Nude Descending a Staircase (a plywood staircase, each step of which contains a monitor showing a woman walking down stairs from various angles and at different speeds), Kubota's descending nude echoes the elusiveness of Duchamp's original figure the essential ungraspability of sequentiality in his painting. She also seems to have grasped the fact that Duchamp's schematised mechanical drawing, while partaking of the graphic signifiers and simultaneity of Cubism, deviates from the tangible reality that ultimately governs the 'representational' nature defining the possessive 'male' gaze of Cubism.
As in some of her other video works inspired by Duchamp, Kubota is acutely aware of Duchamp's desire to project a sense of our identities as temporal beings subject to change. It is in this sense that Duchamp's reductivist geometry, or sublimation of the physical world, should be seen in contrast to the self-affirming, transcendent and formalist ideologies of many of his male contemporaries.
Kubota's technological reinvestment of Duchamp's ideas through the 'advanced' medium of video ultimately echoes Duchamp's own supersession of painting. Likewise, Monet's own address of temporality, depicted in the seriality of his work, presages the cinematic and the passing of a static, idealised conception of reality. 'Gazing Back...' thus functions in tandem with its chosen historical models, recontextualising some of the ideas concerning the 'mastery' of the gaze with an openness that allows a pairing of artists whose notions of how we locate ourselves through the act of vision are generally seen as contradictory: a Monet who existentially recorded every passing shard of light, a Duchamp who happily receded into the invisibility of its shadows.