The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern was a revelation. This 83 year-old artist has been obsessively making art in most every style and format imaginable for more than 60 years. My own awareness of Kusama consisted of an encounter with the Infinity Dots Mirrored Room (1996) at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh a few years ago. And, I am loathe to admit that though I lived in the New York art world in the 1970’s she was never in my purview, which made this exhibition, without preconceptions, a true and delightful adventure. Starting from her early studies in traditional Nihonga painting she has worked in sculpture, painting, drawing, collage, performance and installation, putting her own take on the movements of the last half of the twentieth century with a consistent attention to intense detail.
This retrospective chronicles Kusama’s changing work from the middle of the 20th century to the present day. Her early surrealist paintings of the 1950’s reflect the aftermath of war in Japan. She moved to Seattle and then New York in 1957, where she produced the large-scale Infinity Net paintings – thousands of tiny brushstrokes of a single colour – an amazing demonstration of concentration, stamina and technique. She moved on to Accumulation sculptures, which were everyday objects covered in thousands of recurring shapes. The Sex Obsession sculptures were covered with stuffed phalluses and the Food Obsession sculptures with macaroni. All of these showed the same compulsive detail found in the paintings. These sculptures were exhibited in New York with works by Warhol, Oldenburg and Segal in 1962. Kusama anticipated video art with a slide show, photographed by Eikoh Hosoe, showing her in a festive kimono and parasol walking through industrial, desolated and poor areas of New York. Inspired by Joseph Cornell, she created collages full of minute details and repeated use of postage stamps and airmail stickers. The collages grew to include photographs of herself and the polka dots that would become her signature. She also staged performances in the style of the revolutionary 1960s called Body Festivals. She used footage of these events to create the film Kusama’s Self Obliteration. This film, which appears almost incomprehensible to this viewer, won awards at European film festivals.
Eventually, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 and admitted herself to a hospital where she has lived ever since. From this venue, and her studio outside the hospital grounds, she has continued to create brilliantly coloured sculptures, paintings in new and larger formats and the room sized installations. She has also published poetry, novels and an autobiography. The exhibition is chronicled throughout with many, many documents from Kusama’s own archive, including photographs, press clippings, letters and publications. Almost an exhibition in itself, the documentation adds to the richness of this retrospective and should serve to advise artists how much value such archives add to their own narrative.
The final room of the exhibition, Infinity Mirror Room, subverts our spatial sense and the tiny lights suspended in a mirrored room change colour and create the feeling of an infinite space. This continues just until the infinite becomes almost comfortable – then all goes black and we have travelled from infinity to absolutely nothing. Kusama lets the viewer experience the same self-obliteration that she experienced in her earlier film.
Cheryl Siegel has been a librarian at the University of Michigan, the Cooper Union, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Vancouver Aquarium and is currently the librarian at the Vancouver Art Gallery.