Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern- on now until 5th June 2012
‘…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.’ (Yayoi Kusama, Manhattan Suicide Addict, 1978)
Yayoi Kusama is undoubtedly both Japan’s most prominent and prolific living artist. Throughout her more than 60 year career Kusama has worked insatiably and indefatigably, developing a voraciously extensive body of work that encompasses painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, and performance based works as well as the large-scale installations for which she is best known.
The premise of this exhibition is to present a representative selection of Kusama’s work, focusing on those ‘moments when she first worked in particular idioms, showing them as they emerged and absorbed the artist’s full creative energies’.
On display in the first two rooms is an array of works on paper dating from the early 1950s. I liked these early examples of idiosyncratic experimentation, executed in a variety of media including, ink, pastel, watercolour, gouache and tempera, very much. Often featuring abstracted forms suggestive of natural phenomena such as eyes, eggs, seeds, stars and spermatozoa, these works recall both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic and in so doing, the surreal. Kusama staged several solo exhibitions in the early to mid-1950s, initially in Matsumoto then in Tokyo. She also began to receive considerable critical acclaim, but was by now determined to leave Japan. In Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, published last year, the artist recalled: ‘For art like mine- art that does battle at the border of life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die- [Japan] was to small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world’.
Kusama arrived on the West Coast in November 1957 and moved to New York six months later. The Infinity Net paintings displayed in room 3 see Kusama, the curators suggest, responding to abstract expressionism as they differ greatly from her previous style of work. Oil on canvas the Infinity Net paintings are characterised by their highly textured surfaces, created in an at once obsessive and meditative repetition of paint laden brushstrokes, and placid wash of bleached colour. Pacific Ocean (1960), a grey blue welter of scallop shaped crests of paint, is notable for its representation of supreme artistic stamina and serene quality; a contrastingly compulsive and calming creation.
The fourth room features the Accumulation sculptures, first exhibited in a group show alongside work by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and James Rosenquist at the Green Gallery in New York in 1962. The Accumulation sculptures and Compulsion Furniture works bristle with a proliferation of sewn and stuffed fabric phalluses, creating a surreal environment in which dream like obsessions are realised in the physical realm, boldly, brashly, brazenly visible and tactile. The same might be said of Kusama’s Food Obsession series consisting of dried macaroni covered clothing, conveying, one might argue as in the Sex Obsession series, attitudes of shame and disgust in the midst of excess.
In December 1963 Kusama exhibited Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York, an immersive installation environment which consisted of a rowing boat encrusted with phallus like protrusions placed in a room whose walls, floor and ceiling were papered with black and white poster format reproductions of the sculpture as seen from above. Tate recreates Aggregation in order to signal the beginning of yet another new and expansive mode for the artist in which the viewer cannot escape immersion in her idiosyncratic, emotional and psychologically charged visions. Whilst Kusama’s name may not for many be readily associated with the Pop Art movement, Aggregation, it is interesting to note, anticipates Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper by three years.
Kusama’s collages, displayed in room 7, insist on further comparisons and connections with both Pop Art and contemporary developments in minimal and conceptual creation. Her United Skates of Arnica One Roller Bills constitute a far more imaginative, wittily jejune play on capitalism and the peculiarly American obsession with wealth creation, in my opinion, than Warhol’s silkscreened dollar bills of the same period. By the mid to late 1960s Kusama began to integrate photographs of herself into her photocollages and mixed media montages, in so doing visually situating herself, her reproducible, commodifiable self, at the centre of her own artistic, endlessly repeating Kusamatrix.
Room 8 contains archival material relating to the artist’s 1968 film, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. Set to a score by pop-rock band The C.I.A. Change, Kusama’s self-produced film features the artist in rural upstate New York dressed in a spotty ensemble covering animals, plants, and finally a naked male body in polka dots and leaves. Later scenes depict hedonistic (drug induced?) happenings involving nude body painting and orgy-like encounters staged in fabricated environments. Also on display is Self-Obliteration No. 2 (1967), a watercolour, pen, pastel and photocollage on paper, featuring a spot clad Kusama leading a horse into a red polka dot filled foreground. Self-Obliteration No. 2 is reminiscent of Kusama’s Horse Play happening staged in Woodstock the same year. Flyers for Kusama’s body and phallics festivals, as well copies of the newspaper she published entitled Kusama’s Orgy, Nudity, Love, Sex and Beauty for Adults over 21 are also exhibited in this room.
In 1973 Kusama returned to Japan. She returned to object making, beginning a series of mixed media works on paper intended in part as an elegy to Joseph Cornell, a great friend of the artist whose death the previous year had profoundly affected her. I particularly like Graves of the Unknown Soldiers (1977), apocalyptic black laced with traces of hell fire, red and jagged crags overlaid with circular jewel-like images of owl nests, flowers and shells. Kusama’s transition to life back in Japan was troubled and in 1977 feeling physically and psychologically unstable, she voluntarily admitted herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill that has remained her home ever since.
There she returned to the creation of sculptural forms, hand making small individual objects that when combined created large multi-part installations such as Heaven and Earth (1991), a rather uncanny and slightly unnerving piece whose flaccid phallic forms seem static only temporarily, threatening at any moment to begin fighting and flailing.
Room 11 features paintings dating from the 1980s and 1990s; psychedelic works in hot pink and vibrant shades of yellow and green writhing with a proliferation of snake/ spermatozoa-like forms reminiscent of the biological/astronomical imagery present in some of her earliest works on paper.
I’m Here, but Nothing is another of Kusama’s immersive environments, a darkened domestic interior littered with fluorescent polka dots. The room is unsettlingly vacant, filled only by the sound of the artist’s curious warblings. Kusama’s hallucinatory visual and aural reimagining of what the curators refer to as ‘bourgeois stasis’ is rendered soulless and surreal by such a restaging.
Kusama’s recent paintings are her largest to date. These vibrant, almost volcanic works tell wild and dislocated narratives using an idiosyncratically primal visual vocabulary, characteristic of her oeuvre. Images of brilliantly wide eyes, single cell organisms and spermatozoa as well as dots, nets and the artist’s hieroglyphic self in side profile populate these powerfully kinetic, pulsating pieces. The more visually complex paintings contain numerous small figures including doll like little girls, smiling dogs, pumpkins and blooming flowers.
The Infinity Mirror Room created specifically for this exhibition and the largest such installation Kusama has made to date is absolutely mesmeric, seeming truly to be ‘filled with the Brilliance of Life’. The viewer is encouraged to suspend his or her sense of self and to accompany Kusama on her on-going, paradoxical journey of discovery through self-obliteration. I am most definitely a convert to the cult of Kusama.