The Intermedia Work of Nobuo Kubota

Presented by the JCCC Gallery


"The making of art is the most important thing; showing it is secondary."

Nobuo Kubota 2007

Nobuo Kubota has been contributing to Canadian art for over 40 years as musician, sculptor, fine artist and performer. An early member of the Artists Jazz Band and the CCMC (Canadian Creative Music Collective), he is known for his extended vocal techniques and sound poetry.

In 1970 he spent a year in Japan, living with a Zen master, which led him to investigate artistic influences from the East (Japanese art, opera and architecture) and West (jazz, improvisation). His work is included in the collections of Canada's major art institutions and has shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and performances across Canada and abroad. In 2000, he received a Canada Council Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for his outstanding artistic achievement. Nobuo Kubota lives in Toronto. In 2009 he was the winner of the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.

National Gallery of Canada

The Work of Nobuo Kubota and "The Space Between Us"

Nobuo's father was born into a samurai family after the disbanding of the samurai so he was sent by his family to Canada to seek his fortune. There, at the age of 16, Nobuo's father joined the Canadian Armed forces and fought at Vimy Ridge. During WWII, his family including Nobuo, was sent to Slocan Valley as part of the the exile, dispossession, and internment of Japanese Canadians.

After the war, his family relocated to Toronto.

At the same age that Nobuo's father was fighting in Europe, Nobuo was attending Central Technical School in Toronto and was taking trips to New York where he had an exciting encounter with Thelonious Monk.


Nobuo's cultural influences range from Japanese calligraphy to the Western Roman Alphabet; from Japanese buddhist chants to the best of improvisational jazz; from Japanese Swords to fantastical imaginative instrumental sculptures. Much of his work explores the the spirit of text, the sonic intonations of Buddhist monks and the syncopated rhythms of jazz scat. His sound poem "Meta Narrative" is an example of this sonic blending. These influences are interpreted though Nobuo's own artistic creations whether they be sonic, sculptural or paper-based. A trained architect, Nobuo's architectural installation art pieces literally encompass the space between us with visual ingenuity, grace and playfulness.

Nobuo Kubota's artistic practice grows out of the geography and culture between east and west, conceptual and representational, sound and silence. This exhibition is a selective retrospective featuring work from Nobuo Kubota's over 40 year career as an artist. It is also presents a context for new exhibition of work we hope to see from Nobuo in the next year.

Katherine Yamashita


The Kelowna Art Gallery, 1999

In Passage, the Samurai sword, the rock garden, and the screen; or the rocks set in the pool of Waves are obviously references to what viewers will immediately respond to as Japanese. D.T. Suzuki describes the Zen aesthetic as based on 'wabi' and 'sabi' (Zen and Japanese Culture). Wabi is literally poverty; it refers to the utter simplicity of the Zen artwork. Wabi is probably most familiar to Western eyes as the brushwork of Zen paintings in which a simple stroke becomes a bamboo section or a bird in flight. What you see is what you get, but its very poverty or simplicity is its wealth or value. Sabi means solitude, or loneliness; it refers to 'rustic unpretentiousness'. Sabi would be most familiar in the simple handmade teacups of the Buddhist tea ceremony. Kubota takes this aesthetic one step further, not only alluding to the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the piece's construction but also revealing the technological simplicity and unpretentiousness of the piece. In Passage, the laser, the video camera and monitor, and the wires connecting them, are all visible. The technology itself is — adjusting to our acceptance of the technological revolution of the past few decades — also simple and unpretentious.

Pointless Circularity: The Art of Nobuo Kubota. from the catalogue for Nobuo Kubota: The Exploration of Possibility by Terrance Heath

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Intermedia Work

British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is credited with inventing the neologism "intermedia" in 1812. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins appropriated and expanded on this term in his seminal essay entitled "Intermedia" in The Something Else Press Newsletter of February 1966. In his essay, Higgins suggested that the intermedia artist works amongst the boundaries of two or more disciplines - not simply combining different media, but using a consciously developed strategy of displacement concerning the passage of one or more disciplines to another. Intermedia is therefore, not an aesthetic style or genre.

W. Mark Sutherland

Three Intermedia Paradigms

Phonic Slices

The Lonsdale Gallery, 2001

By randomly gluing pre-cut wooden letters into a rectilinear box-form, Nobuo Kubota constructed a sculptural work that he calls a "phonic loaf." He then sawed the loaf-like object into slices, thus exposing the materiality and plasticity of alphabetic signs, as they existed in a chance operation with three-dimensional space. While the slicing of the phonic loaf revealed the physical and sculptural qualities of the letters, it also created a sequence of sculptural slices that are visual poems and potential optophonetic sound-scores in their own right. The exposed letters as forms, remnants, and particles, complete in themselves, assumed iconographic value — not conveying semantic import, but physically manifesting poetic language and performative sonics.

Three Intermedia Paradigms From Nobuo Kubota

By W. Mark Sutherland

Phonic Loaf

3000 letters cut out with a bandsaw, stacked and glued

Phonic Slices

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Phonic Slice Rubbings

Next, Kubota made charcoal and graphite rubbings of the individual slices, offering an infinite number of variations on a theme, and an entirely different kind of aesthetic experience. Here the complete and partial alphabetical letters are pushed towards total abstraction. These rubbings (wall-mounted or contained in the bookwork) can be viewed conventionally as graphic copies from an original form or as visual poems and potential optophonetic sound-scores, ready for interpretation in a public performance.

W. Mark Sutherland

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Phonic Slices the Bookwork

(Bookwork published by Coach House)

Nobuo Kubota's bookwork Phonic Slices is one manifestation of a much larger project. Kubota began by randomly gluing wooden letters into a large sculptural work that he calls a 'phonic loaf.' He then sawed the loaf into slices, which yielded a sequence of sculptures that act as visual poems and sound scores for public performance. Next, Kubota made charcoal and graphite rubbings of the individual slices. A selection of these rubbings, along with treated scans of the original slices, make up the content of this book

Publisher's Description

2001 This work is available from Coach House Press

Deep Text

Similar to Phonic Slices, Deep Text is the bookwork version of an installation. Each of its 13 pages presents a grid of 64 cells, each of which contains the first letter of a word. On the second page, the same cell contains the second letter of each word, and so on, with blanks in the grid when words end. The process of reading becomes a physical, sculptural, performative gesture, compelling the reader to experience each page of the book as a clue on the trail of the hidden meanings.

Publisher's Description

Bookwork and Installation

Installation on Plexigalss

Deep Text

With the installation version of Deep Text, Kubota creates a new perceptual paradigm based on the treatment given the text in the bookwork. By applying vinyl letters to clear plexiglass panels suspended in a row, he achieves a transparency for the text that is impossible with the pages in a codex form. This semantically and syntactically correct, self-referential text is particularly effective when ruptured by its physical presentation and the viewer's gaze. The viewer becomes engaged in the installation, performing a unique optical "pas de deux" with the work. Consequently, this installation piece pivots round both a perceptual phenomenon and an intellectual act, vacillating between the known, which is found in familiar words in a recognizable syntactical structure, and the unknown, which is discovered in the constantly shifting letters spelling words within words, denying and defying the very meaning of the text on which the piece is based.

W. Mark Sutherland

(Bookwork published by Coach House)

Working with a self-referential, sixty-four-word text, Deep Text (the bookwork) addresses the formal principles of the codex and the act of reading. On the first of thirteen bound pages, the first letter of each word of the text is printed in a grid. On the second page of the book the grid contains the second letter of each word of the text; and so on, with blanks in the grid when words end, until the thirteenth page, where only the last letter of the longest word appears. Obviously, the sentence cannot be seen in full all at once, because of the opacity of the page. Reading this bookwork is a physical, sculptural, and performative gesture. The reading process compels the reader to confront the materiality of each page of the book, and in turn, each letter of the alphabet in an attempt to decode the hidden semantics. Further, each page contains an abstraction of letters from the text, creating a purely visual poem and a potential optophonetic sound-score.

W. Mark Sutherland

Phonic Traces

(Audio-visual Installation)

The piece that is clearly a loop system is Phonic Traces, where I isolated the letters from words by strategically cutting the letters into two pieces, creating two new forms that are independent from the original form. By taking each letter and splitting it into two parts, I destroyed the source of the alphabetits sound and history. Having destroyed the original form, I gave the two pieces a new sound that contained remnants of the original. Visually, the shapes of the half pieces of letters become sculptural. When I constructed the new form with a sculptural attitude, the traces became a phonic/sonic sound language.

Nobuo Kubota

from Nobuo Kubota in Conversation with W. Mark Sutherland

If Phonic Slices is indicative of an “aleatoric” approach to art making and Deep Text is an exemplification of a “structural” approach to art making, Phonic Traces must be considered an act of hybridity predicated on the confliction of these differing methodologies.

W. Mark Sutherland

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Once again, Kubota begins his work on Phonic Traces by cutting recognizable wooden-letters from a 3/4 inch sheet of pine. Taking each letter of the alphabet, he performs a further, single cut, which divides the letter into either a quarter, a half or three quarters of its original shape. He places these phonic traces and stems in one of 104 compartments housed in a free-standing, wooden rectangular-box (6’ x 5’ x 6”) which is loosely modeled on a typesetter’s California job-case. Kubota then, assigns a sonic value to each of the stems and traces; for example the divided letter “Z” produces two sounds, “zine” and “miz,” while the divided letter “C” produces the sound “calu” and “loc.” By arbitrarily arranging some of the wooden stems and traces on the gallery wall, Kubota creates a tactile, three-dimensional poem. Lastly, he records his performance of the poem on the wall and includes a set of headphones connected to a secreted CD player at the front of the printer’s box facing the wall on which the optophonetic poem is situated.

For the viewer, Phonic Traces is a challenging conundrum of conflicted duality: a site, where the continually shifting, aural process of play and invention never quite succeeds in completely destabilizing the installation’s structural essence. It is also, present in the deconstruction of graphic signification, which constitutes the installation’s materiality, and Kubota’s idiosyncratic attempts at reclamation of the sign through the body’s orality. In short, Phonic Traces is a manifestation of Zen-like ambiguity, blurring disciplinary borders, creative methodologies and accepted linguistic cultural-practice.

W. Mark Sutherland

Calligraphic Work

Nobuo's calligraphic work is closely related to both his sound and wood-based phonic work. The spirit of written and spoken language is abstracted and reconstructed in gestural lines that are reminiscent of the script of many languages. The script often acts as a way for Nobuo to notate his own verbal explorations and many of his sonic performances are 'readings' of these calligraphic pieces.

Katherine Yamashita

Early Calligraphic Work 1990

Nobuo Kubota's early calligraphic work related to this theme explores the cursive or calligraphic form derived from a number of sources: Arabic, Roman, Japanese and other cursive script types are expressed in a textual format that is no known language, but more a kind of notation and sonic expression represented as text. The Japanese arts of Shodo and Sumie are also referenced in the script and figurative self-portraits created during this time. They have a marked Japanese sensibility.

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Sonic Scores 2002 - 2005

In this continuing exploration of calligraphy Nobuo adds overlaying, collage, and the photographic image to further explore the visual and auditory aspects of the script. In some of the figurative works, the gestural strokes dynamically express the soundscapes that the figure is making. In another, the script is over-layered as the sounds would be in one of Nobuo's sonic sound works. The closeup of his gestural script displays the detail of his sonic notation and one can almost imagine some of the sounds associated with them.

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Calligraphy for Voices and Instruments

Kubota began to develop a personal style of calligraphy more suited to new vocal sounds, electronic vocal manipulation, and noise related sounds which belonged more to the term sonics around 2002. In early 2013, as he was examining some of these calligraphic scores drawn around the year 2004, his attention focused on three scores titled Sonic Scores for Double Bass, Cello, and Violin. These scores were drawn with a fine Chinese calligraphy brush on a 10 x 13 size paper, almost in miniature. He examined these scores under magnification and discovered a world of details and attitudes that were not obvious with the naked eye. As sonic scores, these details were important as suggestions for improvisation. Kubota also discovered another set of drawings that had been exposed to toner manipulation.

YYZ Exhibition Description

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The Bending Machine 1992

This installation work displays Nobuo's architectural roots. This work also includes his artistic process as well as its product. In the Bending Machine, calligraphic script is expressed in ribbons of steel that have been curved by Nobuo's simple, elegant and very effective bending machine.

The results are ribbon-like script pieces that hang on the wall as though suspended in the air. The shadow play from these forms accent and add to the feeling that the script is dancing in light and shadows.

The bending machine itself draws vague memories of DaVinci's machines yet the simple elegance of the design and structure also harkens to Wrights Guggenheim.

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Sound Poetry and Video Performance

Loopholes 2002

Loop Holes was Kubota’s next public performance sound-installation spectacular. Nine separate video monitors were placed in a grid (3 X 3). Each monitor featured the artist reciting the same improvisational sound poem with the running time of the tape on each monitor advanced by half a second. This collision of sound and image cleverly framed a mediated past to the immediate present and a constantly shifting future.

Mark Sutherland


In this sound performance Kubota uses a small battery operated crackle box voice altering device.

Reference Links

"Pointless Circularity: The Art of Nobuo Kubota" from the catalogue for Nobuo Kubota: The Exploration of Possibility by Terrance Heath

Nobuo Kubota in Conversation with W. Mark Sutherland

Nobuo Kubota: Sonic Scores An Exhibition at YYZ Gallery