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The Disorientating Diversity of Kusama and Some More Shrigley

12 Feb

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.

Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern until 5th June 2012, www.tate.org.ukDavid Shrigley: Arms Fayre is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th March 2012, www.stephenfriedman.com.

A Shared Joke – Shrigley Transforms the Hayward

4 Feb

After a busy week, I decided to pop to the Hayward Gallery’s late night on Friday to see their new David Shrigley exhibition.

The Hayward Gallery. Own photograph.

The Hayward has deviated from their norm for this exhibition.  Firstly, after showing your ticket at the main door, you enter via the lift (the attendant and I shared a baffled glance while I waited for it to arrive) which is filled with Monkeys – Shrigley’s spoken word installation.  It’s slightly claustrophobic but effective and dramatic.  Shrigley is that bit different; people are forced to do as he wishes and he is very much guiding our viewing.  And so I arrived at the upper galleries ready to be led wherever the artist wanted to take me.

Installation view of David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery.  Image courtesy of the Hayward Gallery and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

Shrigley is known for his sense of humour, which is often rather warped, but there is no denying that his witty comments on everyday life are funny.  Brain Activity, which includes 68 new works made especially for the show, is the first major survey of Shrigley’s work to span the full range of his varied media – drawings, sculpture, taxidermy, animations, films, paintings…

David Shrigley, Very Large Cup of Tea, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

At the Glasgow School of Art, he wasn’t considered a serious artist and he left with a 2:2.  He was already antagonised by the establishment because they felt his artwork was inappropriate and more cartoonish than fine art.  So, on leaving the GSA, he became a cartoonist – not to take heed of them but to escape the environment and the people who kept degrading and undermining his work.  Eventually, he reconsidered and in 1995 his work was featured on the front cover of Frieze magazine.  Shrigley had made it, he was somebody.

Given this background, it is natural that Shrigley has little respect for the art world and he has never sought to fit in.  A Glaswegian, his sense of humour is often coarse and he has no issue in ‘sticking two fingers up’ at the art institutions that have made him famous. He has a dark humour that comes from a deep sense of frustration and drawing, for him, is a cathartic process.  Shrigley isn’t as you’d expect him to be – he’s quiet and polite, clean-shaven and wears socks with his sandals.  He works calmly for eight hours a day; he is not the madman that some of his works would suggest.

David Shrigley with his work. Image via www.mydaily.co.uk.    

Shrigley appeals to people who aren’t typical art lovers.  He produced a weekly cartoon for the Guardian for many years and has also been the political cartoonist for the New Statesman.  He doesn’t try to shy away from this and very much has a foot in both camps (cartoon and fine art) – he is overtly commercial and his work is found on t-shirts, badges, cards, duvet covers and tattooed onto the bodies of numerous fans.  Cartoons, however, are normally tidy and highly finished whereas Shrigley’s works are usually messy with crossed-out sections and scribbles.  His drawings and animations, which play on a range of familiar social subjects and everyday situations, are often awkward and crude while remaining immediate and accessible.  He is not a skilled draughtsman nor does he aim to be.  For him, drawing is just a method of communicating, writing a message to convey his thoughts.

David Shrigley, Untitled, 2011.  Image courtesy of David Shrigley and Yvon Lambert and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

Shrigley is known for producing thousands and thousands of drawings, a corpus currently thought to include more than 7,000 works on paper.  There were around 25,000 but he discards a lot.  We don’t, however, feel the impact of his relentless scribblings here.  There’s not enough on show; the exhibition features around 240 works which may seem like a lot but I wanted more.

Shrigley is absurd: there’s a bell with a card saying ‘not to be rung again until Jesus returns’, a childish painting of a door marked ‘door’, a sign that says ‘hanging sign’ as he plays on the obvious in a comic way, a taxidermied rat placed under a fake wall and ominously visible as you pass by (ick!), and his, now-famous, taxidermied dog holding a placard that says ‘I’m dead’.

David Shrigley, I’m Dead, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

Death and the macabre are frequent themes in Shrigley’s work.  A gravestone with the words ‘Bread, Milk, Cornflakes, Baked beans, Tomatoes, Aspirin, Biscuits’ is an ironic take on our day-to-day consumption.  Shrigley commented that he prefers to see the humorous side of death as it isn’t something we can avoid.  Like me, he’s always been interested in lists and enjoys placing seemingly random information together in a way that forces it to become coherent.  His message may often be pessimistic but, notwithstanding this, he’s often able to induce a smile.  In the darkest of subjects, there is always some light to be found.

David Shrigley, Gravestone, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

In one of the outside courtyards stands a stick figure.  Try to get closer though and you can’t.  Shrigley has stuck the door, teasing us.  Again, we go where Shrigley tells us to.  One room has a fake wall with 12 eggs on top – suggestive of Humpty Dumpty as a small Alice in Wonderland-styled doorway in the wall allows you to see the feet of those passing by (the perfect place to check out the footwear).  Again, we want to go there but it’s not that easy.  The other courtyard is exhibiting Look at This but we can’t get out there either.  Visitors were smearing away condensation from the windows to try to look.  The joke is on us.

Some of the works are a bit bland but I think, like a comedy act, this level of humour is impossible to maintain all the time.  Brain Activity is actually the best-curated exhibition I’ve seen here in a long while.  It has been skilfully planned and lit and really transformed the gallery space.  Shrigley has made the Hayward his own.

David Shrigley, Hanging Sign. Image via www.whosjack.org

While walking round I overheard someone uttering the predictable ‘is it art?’.  Although this is something that people often ask of Shrigley, this is now an old and boring question.  He thought to do it.  They didn’t!

I don’t think Shrigley’s art is funny all the time but I caught myself smiling when I least expected to and, it was nice to see that the exhibition was having the same effect on other people.  Like a Mexican wave, a shared joke was moving across the galleries.  Shrigley’s aim is not to make people actually laugh – this is just a by-product of his art; using simple mechanisms and objects he seeks to engage people through humour.

David Shrigley, Nutless, 2002.  Image via www.thedrawbridge.org.uk

But (and it’s a big but), the exhibition only takes place upstairs.  The ground floors will be given over to the Jeremy Deller exhibition which opens on 22nd February.   Fortunately, there’ll be a £10 joint ticket so visitors aren’t expected to pay twice for what is normally one exhibition space but I still felt let down.  I was enjoying the exhibition and it finished far too soon.

David Shrigley, Untitled, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk

You don’t need to know anything about Shrigley or his practice to enjoy these works.  There will be no added pleasure from doing your homework before going to this exhibition.  Shrigley’s ‘stuff’ is eclectic to say the least.  It shouldn’t be funny but it is.  I just wish I’d been given the opportunity to laugh at more.  It was good but it wasn’t great as I know that Shrigley could have filled the whole of the Hayward and I’d have come away more satisfied.

David Shrigley: Brain Activity is at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012, www.southbankcentre.co.uk/shrigley.

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