Yayoi Kusama retrospective

by HRM on December 5, 2011

by Hattie Middleditch

Currently showing at the Pompidou centre is the first French retrospective of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Kusama’s work, which encompasses feminism, surrealism, pop art and abstract expressionism, is displayed chronologically in this exhibition. This gives the viewer an insight not only into her development as an artist, but also the defining and recurring elements of her work. Repetition, pattern and accumulation in Kusama’s work reflect the way in which the artist describes herself, as an obsessive. Indeed it was these obsessive tendencies which contributed to her decision to check herself into a mental hospital in Tokyo in 1973 where she still lives today

Installation Yayoi Kusama

Installation, Yayoi Kusama

The exhibition starts well with a walk-in installation, a room resembling a dining room. A fully laid breakfast table stands central. The shelves on the walls are laden with domestic objects: photos, flowers, books, lamps. So far, relatively familiar, but every surface is covered in polka dots, made fluorescent by UV lighting. The dot motif, which dominates Kusuma’s work, is designed to represent the dissolution of the humane in cosmic infinity. This reflects the goal outlined in Kusuma’s film, Self Obliteration (1968), to ‘become at one with eternity; to obliterate one’s personality and become simply a part of your environment’. Though the humane and individual is present in the opening installation of the exhibition, it is obliterated by polka dots allowing for the dissolution of any such individuality. Works produced by the artist in New York also reflects this dissolution of individuality. Kusuma went to New York in 1958 as a result of what she saw as a lack of opportunity for female artists in post-Hiroshima Japan. Oversized canvases are covered in dots, some monochrome, and some using colour. The canvases embody two contradictory attitudes: the controlling aspect of repetition and the liberating effects of losing control.

Pacific Ocean, Infinity Nets Yellow

Pacific Ocean, 1960 (left) Infinity Nets Yellow, 1960 (right) - Yayoi Kusama

The theme of obsessive repetition recurs in the Accumulations, produced in New York the 1960s. Kusuma has assembled objects she found in the street with her friend and fellow artist, Donald Judd. These objects are often associated with femininity and domesticity, for example, arm chairs, high-heeled shoes, dresses, stools, even a female mannequin. Back in her studio Kusuma proceeded to cover these objects with phalluses. The way in which the phalluses overwhelm these feminine objects is clearly a metaphor for female oppression which Kusuma herself so feared. Yet, crafted in soft material, these phalluses are limp and vulnerable reflecting simultaneously the instability of sexuality. Kusuma’s interest in sexuality and sexual liberation is also evidenced in the short films and slideshows produced on the streets of New York in the late 1960s. One produced in 1966 charts public exhibitions of nudity at symbolic sites organized by Kusuma. The emphasis on sexual liberation is blatant here but underlying this performance are political protestations against the Vietnam war. Essentially Kusuma’s performance reflects a fight not only for sexual and physical, but also intellectual autonomy.

Accumulation No 1, 1962

Accumulation No. 1, 1962

Anatomic Explosion-Anti-War Happening

Anatomic Explosion-Anti-War Happening, 1968. Brooklyn Bridge, New York

In fact, the year 1966 was a transitional year for Kusuma in which the idea of self-obliteration dominates. The exhibition informs us that Kusuma designed ‘a system which replaced the reality of her own world in which her famous polka dots obliterate endlessly’. In this period the obsessive dots became not so much a reflection of liberation but more a metaphor for the contamination of her work by mental illness. The collages produced on her return to Tokyo in 1973 reflect her earliest work produced in the 40s and 50s in Japan. Death and destruction are omnipresent. Subjects are abstracted and dream like, an indication of Kusuma’s own troubled and unfocused mind.

Self-obliteration by dots, 1968

Self-obliteration by dots, 1968

The final section of this exhibition focuses on paintings, sculptures, and most interestingly, ‘environments’ produced from the beginning of the 80s to the present day. The two environments (Dots Obsession Infinity Mirrored Room, 1998 and Infinity Mirrored Room 2011) are both variations on the theme of a box walled with mirrors into which the spectator enters. The idea is the simulation of sensory immersion in an infinite universe. The mirrors play on the idea of a loss of bearings caused by light and reflection inviting the spectator to question his place in the universe. It is here that Kusuma’s attempt to portray the infinity of the universe into which we as individuals are dissolved is undoubtedly most successful. These pieces and indeed the whole exhibition, confirm her as one of the most interesting and innovative female artists of our times.

Dots Obsession Infinity Mirrored Room, 1998

Dots Obsession Infinity Mirrored Room, 1998

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ISSN: 2116 34X