Yayoi Kusama, at 82 years-old, is arguably Japan’s most infamous artist in the West. Over many decades she has worked tirelessly in almost all mediums, and while her style has developed and arguably influenced artists as seminal as Andy Warhol, it has always remained recognizably “Kusama.”
The current exhibition at London’s Tate Modern takes on the challenge of charting her entire career in just 14 rooms. In order to achieve this, curator Frances Morris has decided to create immersive environments that focus on the first time Kusama worked in particular methods and styles. What’s clear throughout, however, is Kusama’s fragile mental state and nature as an “outsider” – as a woman in a male dominated sphere; as a Japanese artist in the United States; as a voluntary in-patient in a hospital for the mentally ill.
Whether Londoners realize it or not, Kusama’s ubiquitous polka dots will be familiar to anyone who took a stroll along the south bank of the Thames in 2009. Similar to her installation at the Singapore Biennale in 2006, as part of the Hayward Gallery’s “Walking in My Mind” group exhibition, Kusama covered all of the tree trunks in red with white polka dots. These same dots, while not featured inside the exhibition itself, line the corridors as an invitation to come inside for more.
The first rooms feature early paintings and drawings, highlighting the difficulty of coming of age in post-war Japan by the necessitated use of a variety of household materials in lieu of proper artists’ materials. While showing hints of traditional Nihonga painting style, I wondered whether perhaps Kusama’s reluctance to sign her name in Japanese script was an early nod to her consuming desire to head to the West and New York a little later in her career.
Moving through the painstakingly handmade repetitive brushstrokes of her monochrome “Infinity Nets,” the adjoining rooms contain whole room installations of her “Accumulation Sculptures.” These feature everyday objects covered in an abundance of loosely phallus-shaped stuffed fabric, and were perhaps too inviting to the visiting crowds as proximity alarms were almost continuously ringing, much to the chagrin of the gallery assistants.
The exhibition moves on to collages, and the film “Kusama’s Self Obliteration” that both feature the aforementioned polka dots she has come to be most closely associated with. While the idea of “happenings” and the synergy of naked flesh represent the art scene of 1960s America well, the video of the event seems stereotypically “psychedelic,” almost to the point of parody from a modern point of view. (This uneasy mood wasn’t helped by parents failing to heed the explicit content warnings and hurriedly removing their children before awkward questions were asked).
Glossing over Kusama’s move into the literary world on her return to Japan, the proliferation of polka dots continues in another room-sized installation. Representing an external manifestation of the hallucinations that have plagued her since childhood, the perfectly ordinary living room interior that forms the foundation of “I’m Here, but Nothing” is transformed by hundreds of multi-colored spots that glow in the dim UV light.
After this slightly unsettling treatment of the mundane, Kusama’s most recent paintings – done since 2009 – seem a little childlike and garish. While the canvases feature dots and tadpole shapes common in many of her works, to me they come across as a less joyful imitation of Keith Haring’s trademark cartoon-esque scrawls.
But the exhibition ends with simultaneously one of the most beautiful and disorientating experiences I’ve had in an art gallery for a long time. “Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life” is a new installation in a series first experimented with in 1965. Comprising exactly what the title would suggest – a mirrored room filled with little colored lights suspended from the ceiling that pulse and change hue – the atmosphere created manages to be both tranquil and electrically charged. Snaking through the room between the jet-black pools of water on the floor, it’s easy to feel almost entirely consumed by the “infinity” created. Walking through the exit door, the noisy coffee shop environment I found myself in almost seemed stranger than the silent calm of the pitch black room from which I had emerged.
Yayoi Kusama, until June 5, Tate Modern, London.