Fresh from its fêted exhibition of the works of Gerhard Richter the Tate Modern has mounted another awe-inspiring retrospective, this time charting the life’s work to date of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Resident to this day in the psychiatric hospital to which she voluntarily admitted herself in 1977, Kusama, who will turn 83 in March, is Japan’s most famous artist and yet she remains relatively little-known in the West. This thrilling exhibition is sure to change that.
Introducing the exhibition the curator and head of the Tate Modern’s International Art Collection, Frances Morris, took pains to emphasise the extent to which to Tate Modern was broadening its collections and scope to encompass what she termed the ‘global nature of contemporary art practise'. Kusama herself is a key case in this widening of perspective: born in Japan and educated in the traditional Nihonga style of painting, she moved to New York at the age of 27 to pursue her avant-garde interests. It was here that she developed some of her most influential work, including the Infinity Net series of paintings and the Accumulation sculptures.
One of Kusama's Infinity Net paintings
Each of these series of works has a whole room given over to them in this exhibition, designed as a chronological journey through the many phases of Kusama’s career. Thus, the visitor can see her move from her early styles; with heavy inflections of modernism and surrealism visible in the sensitive, abstractly organic watercolours and dark, evasive oil-paintings; through the large-scale, minutely obsessive Infinity Nets; to the burgeoning of her Accumulation sculptures and emergence of her various commentaries on society and her position in it in the USA towards the end of the 1960s; onto the many and various forms her work has taken since her return to her native Japan.
Body-painting for Kusama's Self-Obliteration
The irony of Kusama’s work is that what was once inherently shocking has lost a lot of its provocativeness in the forty-odd years since it was first produced. The Accumulation sculptures, with their proliferation of phallic forms covering everything from shoes to a white-painted rowing boat (and when I say covering, I mean you can barely make out what all the sweet-potatoes/penises are blossoming out of) don’t induce shock so much as a fascination with Kusama’s fascination. The marriage of surrealism and Pop-Art in her work is daring and clever, and the visitor is encouraged to engage with Kusama’s output not as the work of an enfant terrible but of a bold and thoughtful commentator.
The same reaction is elicited by Kusama’s most outrageous works – the series of ‘happenings’ that she conceived in the late 1960s and which formed the basis of the film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, also on show as part of the exhibition. Nudity, sex and drug-culture are a bit ‘old-hat’ in today’s art world, but what we are treated to in the absence of the original shock-factor is a greater understanding of the complex psychological pain and social discomfort that influences so much of Kusama’s work.
Detail from I'm Here, but Nothing
Since her return to Japan from New York in the early 1970s, Kusama has not only continued to produce thoughtful and thought-provoking artwork, but also to write poetry, novels, and autobiographical material. Her sculptures evolved throughout the 1970s and 80s to produce etiolated versions of her original Accumulation series, boxed and confined in a way that can’t help but echo the increased confinement of her own lifestyle. Pieces such as Leftover Snow in the Dream evoke hieroglyphic shapes and organic forms; these recur in the paintings Kusama has produced over the last thirty years, the palette of which has grown increasingly bright, so that her newest paintings evoke cave-paintings and microscope photos, rendered in psychedelic monochrome.
One of Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms
The exhibition also features installations such as the haunting I’m Here, but Nothing, a UV-lit domestic setting covered in evenly spaced, glowing polka-dots and with Kusama’s child-like singing echoing through it. By demonstrating anxieties around absence and control and inviting the visitor into a participatory role Kusama evinces both discomfort and a sort of catharsis upon emerging into a normally-lit room. The final room of the exhibition is given over to a specially created version of one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms entitled Filled With the Brilliance of Life. Glowing lights phase between blue, green and red, reflecting off dark mirrors and visitor’s faces, creating a magical, trippy closing experience to round off this wonderful exhibition.
‘Yayoi Kusama’ is at the Tate Modern until 5 June 2012. There’s also an exhibition of some of her new paintings and sculptures at Victoria Miro Gallery until 5 April 2012.