Last Tuesday morning during our cold spell (which doesn’t seem to be abating) I battled it through the snow to Tate Modern where I was greeted by a number of over-sized polka-dot inflatables. Yayoi Kusama has arrived in the UK.
The 4th floor at Tate Modern. Own photograph.
Now aged 82, Kusama, whose work spans six decades, is one of Japan’s best-known living artists. Outside art circles, her work is not widely known but Tate is rightly propelling her into everyone’s consciousness. This grand old lady of the visual arts travelled to the UK for the first time in 12 years to see her Tate show; she arrived at the exhibition, glowing in a polka-dot dress and red wig (matching the balls outside), laughing with a bright red lipstick smile.
Yayoi Kusama visiting her exhibition. Own photograph.
Even today, she is still innovative and ground-breaking and this broadly chronological unfolds with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance, showing off Kusama’s extensive and diverse body of work. It allows us to learn about the artist; Kusama’s creative career can be divided into sections – beginning and ending in Japan, it includes a substantial period in New York where she was one of the forerunners on the alternative scene. There is a natural dialogue between East and West in all of her work – sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious.
The first two rooms show her rarely-seen early work as she moves away from her Japanese origins into a heavily-influenced Western style. Her works on paper from the 1950s use abstracted forms that suggest natural phenomena with carefully worked, highly-detailed surfaces encompassing her own unique vocabulary.
Yayoi Kusama, early works on paper. Own photograph.
Kusama’s Infinity Paintings are breathtaking. Seemingly endless scalloped brushstrokes of a single colour on a contrasting background have a calming effect on us yet are emotionally loaded with themes of obsession and compulsion. They have a hypnotic quality with the same use of textured surface seen in her Accumulations. This leads us into the middle part of the exhibition where Kusama’s obsession with sex comes to the surface.
Yayoi Kusama, detail of No. White A.Z., 1958-9. Own photograph.
While in New York, she appointed herself ‘High Priestess’ of the emerging hippie scene beginning a series of provocative performance pieces. Chameleon like, she has always adapted to her surroundings. Her Sex Obsession series includes phallus-covered chairs, tables and other day-to-day objects, mocking the macho nature of the US art scene. This is complemented by her food obsession works that use macaroni to show her revulsion at the overabundance of food in the US.
Yayoi Kusama’s Sex Obsession works. Own photograph.
Her decision to return full-time to Japan from the US took a number of years as she see-sawed between the two countries; this was a difficult period of time in which her early hallucinations returned with a vengeance. She admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital where, since 1977, she has voluntarily lived on an open ward. This confined living gave her a sense of safety and ease and, once again, her approach to her art changed; she began creating small objects that were part of large, multi-faceted installations such as The Clouds (1984) which consists of one hundred sewn and stuffed cushions. Although these are white for purity, they create a constellation and installation that is far from pure. The phallic and sperm-like forms of her early years began to return. Once again, her work is in dialogue with itself as Kusama uses her illness to make her art, channelling her warped energies to create her pieces.
Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern with The Clouds, 1984. Own photograph.
Much of her art has a near-hallucinatory effect, triggered by her early use of polka dots that show her unique vision and outlook on the world. This disorientation is closely intertwined with all Kusama’s work where nothing is straightforward and nothing is at it seems. The polka dot, a seemingly pretty and decorative motif, actually relates to the troubling hallucinations of her childhood. Her immersive installations illustrate this with particular intensity as dark, mirrored walls discombobulate, throwing the viewer off balance, causing confusion and disorientation.
Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, but Nothing, 2000. Own photograph.
Kusama has always been ahead of her time. Her art varies so much across her career that often you wouldn’t know it was by the same artist. She was there before everyone else with performance art, wallpaper and installations. The sheer diversity of her art is overwhelming; it’s easy to lose track of who Kusama is and her lack of a signature style is evident in the catalogue (which is, by the way, excellent). She has never stayed in one place, in one genre, for long enough to make a mark on the public awareness. Maybe now it’s time that she does.
Yayoi Kusama, detail of Flame, 1992. Own photograph.
One of the final works is stunning – Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life which has been made specifically for this exhibition. Lights flicker on and off, illuminating and hiding the room in a repetitive cycle. The walls are clad with mirrored panels and a pool of water covers the floor. Hundreds of lights, with endlessly changing colour sequences, are suspended from the ceiling. It is not as disorientating as we expect and we quickly adapt to the coloured environment. Maybe that is the point. I think Kusama intends us to share her path as she has always adapted to her way of living and her confusion is now part of her life. This work is pretty. No doubt people will queue to walk through the glittering, mirrored maze. It seems fun but there’s a deeper message; as we enter these installations we lose ourselves, joining Kusama on her journey of self-obliteration.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011. Own photograph.
Kusama is a brand as the new merchandise in the shop shows. But what a brand! If any artist could achieve half of what this incredible woman has I imagine they’d be ‘well chuffed’.
I’m spending a lot of my time in Waterloo at the moment, working on Heritage Arts’ VAULT – an incredible festival in a new section of the Old Vic Tunnels. This means that rather than being in Mayfair all day, I can often be found at Scooterworks on Lower Marsh – my new temporary ‘office’ where the lovely Stanley keeps me company.
Stanley the cat at Scooterworks. Own photograph.
I can’t, however, keep away from Mayfair for too long, and that evening I popped to the opening of yet another David Shrigley exhibition at Stephen Friedman – Arms Fayre. A bucket of beers was waiting for guests outside the gallery. They needn’t have bothered with the ice though. Even in gloves, my fingers could have chilled a bottle quite adequately.
David Shrigley, new works on paper at Stephen Friedman. Own photograph.
Bringing together three strands of Shrigley’s work, the exhibition is essentially an extension of the current show at the Hayward. Bombs captures the archetypal image of a missile commonly found in cartoons. This element of destruction and hurt is transformed in ceramic by Shrigley into something simple, fragile and alluring.
David Shrigley, Bombs, 2011. Own photograph.
The sculpture here had a stronger impact than the drawings. All in all, it’s a small but good exhibition and one that they had to put on to complement the exhibition across the river. It works well and helps to further illustrate the endlessness of Shrigley’s work.