Thursday, 17 May 2012

Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern, London (9 February-5 June 2012)

If you are lucky enough to be able to position yourself within Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Wall – Filled with the Brilliance of Life installation where you can neither see reflections of yourself or other visitors and then lose yourself in the gently changing coloured lights, you are in for a truly magical experience.   This may seem a little theatrical and the piece itself may also be seen by some as too grandiose in its intention (a multitude of tiny LED spot lights suspended from the ceiling provide the artist with a clever 21st century twist for her obsession with polka dots) in comparison to much contemporary art.  Nevertheless, it is the first artwork which has completed engaged all my senses and momentarily transported me to a liminal space never experienced before and for that reason, for me it was truly magical.  In fact, the whole exhibition was a wonderful, unexpected gem.  To my embarrassment, I was unaware of Kusama until seeing images of her soft sculpture work featured in some press for this show.  It is such a surprise and pleasure not only to discover a new artist but with a body of work and art historical story which is personally exciting and fascinating and offers potential for further research and discovery.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Japan in 1929 and developed a passion for art making from an early age.  Formally trained, she eventually emigrated to the United States frustrated by the conventional teaching she was receiving and becoming more interested in the European and American avant-garde.  She moved to New York in 1958 and for the next ten years immersed herself in the burgeoning conceptual artistic scene of the time before returning to Japan, where she remains today, aged 84.  There is so much work to love in this exhibition, from her exquisite early works on paper, the tour de force of her Accumulation sculptures and later large sculpture and installations, as well as the wonderful Infinity Mirrored Wall.  The work she produced during her ten years in New York are inarguably on a par with the likes of Schneemann, Spero and other female artists who were carving out careers in a pre-feminist art world, yet her name is curiously missing from feminist writings about the very art scene she was very actively involved in.
Her collage work of the 1970s and the 1980s paintings seem to reflect the mental health crises she experienced at the time and appealed less to me.  They seem to be searching for a previous direction which had been momentarily lost and out of the artist’s grasp.  However, they are still fascinating to view within the context of what was happening in her life during that time.  Her most recent paintings reminded me of the Matisse’s late collage works, what they lack in cutting edge exploration or critical enquiry, they make up for with their air of pathos showing an elderly artist’s need to be creative when their artistic powers are failing them.  Equally fascinating was the archive material on display.  There was a wonderful photograph in a New York tabloid reporting on one of her infamous naked happenings staged in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art.  A very uncomfortable and embarrassed looking security guard is approaching a small group of naked performers who have invaded the pond where Maillol’s The River sculpture is sited.  It is both a comical and thought provoking juxtaposition of accepted female nudity in the form of a modernist sculpture and the unaccepted fleshy reality on display in Kusama’s intervention.
It is though Kusama’s soft sculptures which first drew me to discovering the artist and visiting this exhibition, which speak to me the most.  From the Accumulation series of the 1960s and her clouds and boxes series of the 1980s and 1990s, there is something about the dichotomy of a female artist working with fabric and clothing with all their associated feminist and psychoanalytical readings of aesthetics and touch and in relation to its presentation to an audience where the element of touch is forbidden.

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