The Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Tate modern seems everything Kusama herself would want in a space.
It follows her work fresh from art school in her small hometown in Japan, through to Tokyo then to New York before finally returnign back to her homeland where she now calls a ‘hospital’ home. This collection to me shows the achievements of an artist and the desperate demise of a soul.
I knew very little of Kusama before today – the brief research I had read portrayed a picture of woman who very much resented the constraints of where she was from, and low and beyhold this can be seen in her work from the very beginning of the exhibition.
One of the first things I noticed and even found rather odd was that not only as a Japanese artist in the 1950’s – but as Japanese woman, she chose to sign her name in English not in Japanese characters. This along with the fact her work, even after a classical Japanese art school training showed almost no cultural coherency spoke massively to me as an act of defiance.
A quote I read on the wall from Kusama herself said: “For work like mine, (Japan) was too small…too scornful of women” – looking at her sketch books and indeed her work, its clear she was itching to get away – and she did.
By 1957 she was living in New York, and her work changes drastically. Some of her trademark polka dots are seen in her work from back in Japan, but her first works produced in America show the first sign of an unnatural obsession with repetition – and this theme expands greatly though out the works.
The pieces entitled ‘Infinity Net’ are the first real sign of this – huge oil on canvas works consisting of hundred and thousands of neatly formed circles in tones of white and grey.
This then goes onto to sculpture and the obsession with repetition quickly marries that of sexual curiosity. Sculpture becomes her chosen medium for a number of years – her phallic forms, along with her polka dots, becoming one of her most dominant style for years to come develops from this point.
As her work becomes more intense throughout the exhibition space it becomes obvious Kusama very clearly understood her advantage as an oriental woman working in a world of white men in New York. The first real mention of her heritage is in a series of photographs entitled ‘Double Outsider’ taken of Kusama herself in her native dress wielding an umbrella embellished with flowers. She looks out of place, lost and awkward – but she isn’t. She knew exactly the power of the images she was posing in, using her unique cultural presents as a tool rather than an excuse.
Although some of her pieces, particularly in the untitled works consisting entirely of stamps used to send letters back to Japan, show some signs of loneliness and intimidation – Kusama seems to have really taken the States for everything she could.
Her approach to work while in America almost seems business like in its approach, with attempts at launching an Avant-garde clothing line, a magazine entitled ‘Kusma Orgy’ not to mention her numerous exhibitions of sculpture and paintings – it seems she was a force to be reckoned with in New York at the time.
Her work once she returned to Japan saw a change in style once again – about the same time she admitted herself into the hospital where she still lives.
It becomes more intricate than ever seen before – bright colours and panels of canvas begin to be used to display works – ‘Yellow Trees’ ones of the prime examples of this. However, although Kusama returned to Japan her work still remained as risk taking as ever, with her now famous phallic sculptures making repeated appearances.
By the end of the exhibition you are met with two instillation rooms, one a room filled with glow in the dark dots and a running video tape with Kusma herself singing a song in her native tounge. It is not comfortable – I couldn’t help but think it may have been an attempt to perhaps show an insight into her mind. Either that or – like must of the exhibition, somewhere for the artist herself to feel safe.
It is an extraordinary experience – to be able to almost follow someone’s train of thought, to be apart of their obsessions and, if only for a few minutes – try to understand it. Fascinating heartbreak.
by Lukas Grout