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In the contemporary art world, one would be hard pressed to find an artist who claims to not be influenced by any other, and for it to be actually plausible. Entering Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective, ‘Mirror Years’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, one encounters the following statement that not only sets the tone of the exhibition, but also poses many questions. Kusama states:
Ideas have always filled both my body and soul.
Ideas of obsessional art, repetitive vision, compulsion furniture, driving image and so on are all coming from myself.
I am not influenced by any artists.
Kusama is always Kusama.
Self-obsessed, narcissistic statements such as these, where the artist uses the third person, only make the viewer more eager to seek out any external references or influences present. Kusama, Japan’s great avant-garde ‘sculptor, painter and novelist’, born in 1929 and now residing in a mental institution in Tokyo, suffers from suicidal tendencies, hallucinations and depersonalisation syndrome creating a feeling of detachment from the external world resulting in an unreality in relation to the self. As a child, she claims to have ‘seen’/hallucinated flowers and dots covering the world around her, in an act of visually obliterating an environment. It is Kusama’s neurotic and eccentric obsession with repetition, compulsion, accumulation, self-obliteration and pattern that has led her to become one of the great, innovative and highly influential contemporary artists of today.
Rising to prominence in New York in the 1960s with spontaneous Happenings and her rhythmic and undulating ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, Kusama fuses the sexual, autobiographical and the psychological in her work; whether it is tangible, soft, dot sculptures that emerge from her hallucinations, or intricate paintings of tight nets, or infinity spaces filled with phallic tentacle-like amoebas and mirrors, Kusama is unexpectedly original. Kusama’s multi-disciplinary oeuvre is a hybrid of Pop, Conceptual art, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and contemporary installation and performance.
Curated by Jaap Guldemond of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and Franck Gautherot and Seungduk Kim of Le Consortium, Dijon, ‘Mirrored Years’ features a limited selection of Kusama’s work from the last four decades. Included are experimental film (highlights include Kusama singing in Japanese the songs A Manhattan Suicide Addict and Now That You Have Died), soft sculpture, environmental installation, painting, documentation and a suite of new silkscreen works on canvas that reinforce the detailed, repetitive motifs that exist at the core of her aesthetic. Kusama’s work is intensely sensual and tangible, imbued with loaded and meaningful content—inanimate objects are often rendered anthropomorphic and phallic in an attempt to destabilise and challenge notions of sexuality, masculinity and the femininity of craft-based art.
Whether consciously or not, Kusama’s work subverts the concepts of time and space through architectural interventions in the museum interior; her installations construct infinite realms. Her obsession with perception and sensory experience make for wondrous and exceptional encounters with her art, as in Invisible Life (2000), Narcissus Garden(1966) and The Moment of Regeneration (2004) where a large, tightly clustered forest of various sized, red and black polka-dotted tentacle-like, amoebas emerge upwards from the gallery floor, twisting and converging in space. Narcissus Garden evokes questions of self and nature, through the reflective surface, and placement of objects in space. Here, five hundred mirror spheres lie on the floor of the gallery; over half of them awkwardly spill outside into the open-air veranda, drawing attention to the external architecture of the museum and the expanded space outside. One would expect that perhaps this is not the ideal space for this installation, and a more organic area with fluidity of movement and less awkwardness would better represent the work. Nonetheless, awkward functions perfectly in Invisible Life, a tight, meandering corridor filled with reflective semi-spheres that mirror the viewer’s actions.
‘Mirrored Years’ also features a newly created installation environment titled Clouds (1999-2008). Installed in a darkened space, six organic, inflated forms float, both suspended from the ceiling and lying on the floor. The clouds are monochrome greys and whites—reminiscent of a dreamlike, escapist realm. The viewer is invited to glide through the serene space, reflecting on their own scale and presence amidst the voluminous forms. In contrast to the calming installation, lies one of Kusama’s brilliantly hued, dotted polyptychs titled Stars Infinity (A.B.C.) (2003). The four-panelled painting full of various sized dots on a pink ground reveals Kusama’s passion for psychedelic Minimalism—repetition, the removal of subjectivity, obsession and vibrant colour.
The highlight of Kusama’s retrospective are the all-enveloping Infinity Mirror Room—Fireflies on Water (2000) and Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) (1965). Here, one witnesses the act of self-obliteration and disorientation through the construction of infinite space in fields of shimmering multi-coloured lights reflecting on water, and a mass of soft dotty sculptures that appear like amoebic phalluses that are blown up, stuffed, shrunk, coloured and inflated in a post-feminist, mocking aesthetic. The objects, mirrors and sensory environments camouflage and collapse the stability of the figure/ground relationship.
Quirky, risqué and visceral, Kusama’s works, inspired by her ideas and hallucinations alone, are memorable and original, and there is nothing else in the contemporary art world quite like it. It is plausible that Yayoi Kusama is the ultimate contemporary innovator and avant-gardist; being not influenced by others, but influencing others as ‘Kusama is always Kusama’.