The Tate Modern in London recently wrapped up a massive retrospective of works from Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, which ran from 9 February to 5 June 2012. The exhibition covered all of Kusama’s major stylistic periods and spanned over eight decades of work.

Yayoi Kusama, 'Yayoi Kusama', 1965, photograph. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo

Divided stylistically

Yayoi Kusama at the Tate Modern traces the career of the prolific Japanese contemporary artist in fourteen stylistically divided rooms. The exhibition begins with Kusama’s classically inspired Nihonga watercolours, traces her involvement with abstract expressionism, surrealist sculpture and performance art in New York in the fifties and sixties and ends with the vivid painting and installation work she is most known for today. Many reviewers were impressed by the range and diversity of the work, much of which was new to a Western audience largely familiar with her late works.

In our head, we had previously dismissed Kusama as “the one who does all those damn pumpkins”. After seeing the retrospective, however, we now concede that statement needs to be seriously qualified.

Patrick Nguyen, Arrested Motion

Although dotty inflatable balls greet you outside Tate Modern’s exhibition of sixty years of Kusama’s work, much of it explores her work before the past two decades, retrieving her from confectionery-coloured kookiness and reaffirming her as a truly radical and pioneering figure.

Ben Luke, The London Evening Standard, in a four-star review

Yayoi Kusama, 'Pacific Ocean', 1960, oil on canvas.

What this exhibition demonstrates so brilliantly, though, is that there is much more to Kusama’s work than her dots. The show retraces the journey of a woman whose psychedelic visions have been from very early on combined with a restless taste for experimentation and a fierce determination to succeed.

Coline Milliard, ARTINFO

Many commentators felt that the Tate Modern in particular utilised the retrospective’s size and range to the greatest advantage, avoiding reductive or clichéd themes. To the museum’s credit, Kusama herself was on full display.

Indeed, the survey can offer only a cursory glance, so there’s little sense of transition as Kusama seems to skip effortlessly through a number of different styles in a wide variety of media. And so the exhibition, which is hugely engaging and immersive, manages to also hold a great many surprises.

Fisun Güner, The Arts Desk

Kusama is an interesting figure in the art world with a number of different identities: she is at once a female artist in a male dominated art world, an ‘outsider’ in the realm of Western art, and a victim of mental illness, all of which she has made use of in her art practice, and has played to her strengths.

Marcus Pibworth, One Stop Arts

Yayoi Kusama 'Self-Obliteration No.2', 1967, watercolour, pen, pastel and photocollage on paper.

Somewhere between these two poles, and fourteen rooms, we can trace a journey; through location, (Tokyo, New York and the psychiatric hospital in which she has voluntarily resided for the last forty years), but also through medium and even being. For, if her journey is one of self-obliteration, of obliteration of the self, then the various ways in which she has explored this is its most remarkable aspect.

Harry Burke, i-D Online

Focus on paradigm shifts

As with any massive retrospective, the curators found it difficult to balance the diversity and unity of Kusama’s body of work. Yayoi Kusama is likely Japan’s most prolific living artist, so to encapsulate her entire corpus in one exhibition was no small feat. Tate Modern Curator Frances Morris told Phaidon “We’ve chosen to chapterise her career and focus on the unfolding of particular moments in time. Rather than focus on everything she ever made, we’ve focussed on the paradigm shifts, and each room focuses on one type of work.”

As a result, the exhibition was uncommonly diverse, but also paradoxically unified by common themes and visual symbols, most notably the dot. Connie Viney of The Upcoming discusses how, even when Kusama is traversing such disparate movements as Minimalism and Surrealism, she “maintains distinctive individuality.” Others see Kusama’s breadth of stylistic practice in a more critical light.

[…] Within that personal iconography she has traversed art’s major trends with such chameleon skill that this show reads like a dot-and-prick parody of recent cultural history: witty, sometimes outright funny, though rarely touching a nerve.

Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

Overall the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. However, one commentator found it difficult to move past the superficial visual appeal of Kusama’s work.

Overall, for me, Kusama’s work is just too autobiographical, too personal. […] We must feel that the artist has his or her finger on mankind’s pulse, not just their own. The baring of the soul and of the inner workings of the personal unconscious will seem merely solipsistic if that principle is not observed.

       John Kavanagh, Artists Insight

Yayoi Kusama posing at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York, 1963. Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, 'Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show', 1963, mixed media.

Whimsical fun or dark psychosis?

Yayoi Kusama has dealt with severe psychological problems since childhood, and her artwork is largely inspired by her mental health. As a youth she was abused by her mother, and she has had vivid audio-visual hallucinations her whole life. Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, and in 1977 she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she voluntarily lives to this day.

For Kusama, art was both a release and a form of treatment for her psychological issues. Her 1950s minimalist Infinity Nets were wall-covering canvases painstakingly filled in with tiny circles, forming sublime nets that overwhelm the viewer. To complete them, Kusama would work for hours and even days on end without stop, which the artist has referred to a kind of self-obliteration. Her visual hallucinations and fear of sex led her to cover objects, images and even people with dots and abstract phallic sculptures, projecting her obsessions out into the world.

With this background, many commentators were bemused by the tension between Kusama’s dark inspiration and the incongruous visual whimsy of her work. Some noted that their prevailing response to the exhibition was fun.

If anyone is hoping that the installations will be in any way disorientating or unsettling (as the exhibition notes claim) then prepare to be disappointed. What they are, like much of Kusama’s work, is a lot of fun. It is the playful rather than the psychological aspects that will resonate most strongly with visitors to this show – which is no bad thing at all.

Arab Women Now

Perhaps what could be seen as infantile is more positively described as childlike in its directness, possessing something of what Picasso et al were striving towards when they investigated the art of children, ‘primitives’ and the insane.

 Beverly Knowles, Spoonfed

The success of Kusama’s work, and the undeniable appeal of the exhibition, is that it can be enjoyed purely on the level of the aesthetic. Informative details about her paranoia and neurosis simply add depth to this superficial charm.

Ram Mashru, PORT magazine

Yet others disagree, some specifically commending the Tate Modern’s curatorial decisions as bringing out the darker aspects of Kusama’s work.

I saw this exhibition at the Pompidou, and Tate have done a much better job with it here. The hang is cleaner, and there is a less wacky, more threatening atmosphere, emphasising Kusama’s mental illnesses and hallucinations.

 Laura McLean-Ferris, The Independent

The hang is clean, without a sense of kitsch, and radiates a more threatening atmosphere that emphasises Kusama’s energy, inspirations and mental illnesses. […] Whether painted, fluorescent stick-ons or fairy lights in a mirrored room, what seems pertinent is the fact that beyond the immediate visual appeal lies an endless swimming sea of thoughts, emotions, hope and despair.

The Standard

Yayoi Kusama, 'Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life', 2011, wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED lights, aluminium.

Jury still out on best works

Critics were split as to whether Kusama’s early paintings and sculpture or her later works were the best works in the retrospective. Many attendees were blown away by the full-room installation pieces that ended the exhibition.

It’s only when you are surrounded by her repeating patterns that you realise what it’s like to be immersed in her hallucinatory and fantastical world, where there is a constant struggle between light and dark.

Tabish Khan, Londonist

Echo Hopkins of Artwrit called “Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Light” Kusama’s “magnum opus.” Joseph Richards of The What Where When believes this is due to the particular nature of Kusama’s thematics:

You get the impression that Kusama’s meditative obsessiveness is a mind-bending effect that can never really be pulled off inside a gallery space. Infinity can’t sit inside a frame, and when the gallery space becomes the piece, that’s when the magic happens.

Kusama’s ouevre of paintings, however, proved more contentious.

[…] Among the show-stealers are the recent paintings. A cacophony of colour is belted out from thirteen square canvases that, together, emit a high-octane energy unlike anything I have seen in a long while.

Zoe Strimpal, City A.M.

As [Kusama’s] branding escalates from the eighties, the show becomes uneven, and her most recent paintings, however remarkable in their vivid exuberance, lack the depth and delicacy of those early drawings.

Ben Luke, London Evening Standard

Regardless of the minor quibbles each critic had with the exhibition, the retrospective received near universal praise, cementing Yayoi Kusama’s place as Japan’s foremost contemporary artist. The 83-year-old artist is also set to make 2012 her most productive year in decades. She recently illustrated the Lewis Carroll classic children’s novel Alice in Wonderland and began collaborating with the fashion design giant Louis Vuitton. Her works were highly featured at May’s ART HK 12 in both the ART HK Projects section and the Sotheby’s inaugural selling exhibition. After wrapping up at the Tate Modern, the retrospective will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from 12 July to 30 September 2012.


Related Topics: Yayoi Kusama, museum shows, Japanese art, art in London, round ups

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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