by STIRworldJul 29, 2022
From a collaboration with Louis Vuitton to setting the largest retrospective in Asia, the world's best selling artist Yayoi Kusama is determined to push boundaries of artistic experiences across the globe. Well, certainly, age is just a number as Kusama continues to create compositions even at the age of 93 from her current abode–a psychiatric hospital she voluntarily checked into in the 1970s. Eventually, expect the unexpected as the master herself might be creating something mind-blowing even at this point as you read this piece!
Diverting back to the present, the internationally acclaimed cross-disciplinary artist forays with her largest Asian retrospective at the magnificent M+, museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. The year-long show houses more than 200 works—from major collections in Asia, Europe, and the United States—spanning from her path breaking earlier works from 1945 to Now. For me, this exhibition starts with an important question: How well do you know Yayoi Kusama? We all know this quirky eccentric Japanese lady—who wears a bright crimson wig and bears a dress with red polka dots, who paints polka dots and creates pumpkin sculptures. But her life and artistic career has been beyond these polka dots. This retrospective show perceives Kusama's artistic trajectory while highlighting her challenges that she strongly overcame against all odds. Curator Mika Yoshitake describes the artist’s journey as, "an individual who faced the complexities of the US Occupation, struggled for recognition in New York during the height of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era, experienced the artistic and cultural impacts from Japan's bubble economy, and existential fallout from natural disasters over the last two decades.”
Kusama has had several retrospective shows over the years, including in 1986, a focussed survey in 1997-98, the most comprehensive one organised by Tate Modern in 2012, and many more across Japan and other countries. Most of these exhibitions have been curated chronologically. However, what sets this exhibit apart is Kusama's seven-decade long career that has been laid out through an interesting thematic approach. “I really think of this (retrospective) as multiple lenses on the totality of the artist’s works—the interconnectedness of different themes and sections. Each section does start out chronologically! However, it eventually shows the artistic innovation or important ideas she always returned to….,” shares Doryun Chong, Deputy Director, Curatorial, and Chief Curator at M+. Kusama’s body of works can’t be perceived with a linear approach. One eventually notices, in subsequent decades, that she comes full circle with an evolved take to her earlier discovered breakthroughs or ideas.
Chong decodes the six themes and shares the curatorial vision behind the extravagant show. The curator duo divided these six themes into three pairs. The first one being ‘Infinity and Accumulation’, that highlights Kusama’s early breakthroughs. Kusama has been best known for her Infinity Net Paintings that she started in the end of 1950s and the Accumulation sculptures that she started in the early 1960s in the New York milieu. “This section highlights her two breakthroughs and critical contributions in contemporary art history in paintings and sculptures. We showed how she returned and further developed these motifs,” says Chong.
The third approach to the art exhibition covers a juxtaposition of two extreme dualities—Force of Life and Death. Chong shares, "The earliest works in this exhibition are ones she made in 1945 at the age of 16. She created these notebook drawings of observations of plants and flowers. From here, you already get an idea of her fascination with the cycle of life and death.” However, some of her works show her encountered moments of darkness. This pairs with the final section of Force of Life that represents Kusama’s latest compositions in the last two decades. There is an explosion of scale and colour in her new motifs that come through. "These two section together very clearly show her obsession towards death and suicide. However, there is a way for her to renew her will to live and conviction for art,” adds Chong. This section indeed forms a critical chapter of Kusama’s biography.
The second thematic pair is called Radical Connectivity and Biocosmic. “This is the core of this exhibition,” says Chong. While the previous four terms are long established within Kusama’s artistic dictionary, these two concepts are what the curators coined to define this section of the exhibition. They explain the fundamental tenets of Kusama's philosophy. Radical Connectivity explores Kusama’s notorious happenings that consist of the artist rapidly painting polka dots on nude bodies, before police arrest, to demonstrate the communal connection against the alienation that civilians felt amidst the increasing futility of the anti-war protests. These acts were in direct correlation with the artist’s philosophy of self-obliteration. "Self-obliteration was a means of communal healing, to radically connect those who experienced being on the margins of life—especially hippies, gays, and people of colour,” adds Yoshitake. In fact, a very iconic sculptural ensemble titled Self-Obliteration from the Empress Collection happens to be a crucial element to this retrospective. “It’s a sculptural rendition of a dinner party scene in a rather domestic setting. Everything is covered in infinity net polka dot patterns. This suggests how connected we are in an inorganic world,” Chong tells STIR.
On the other hand, Biocosmic deals with her observations of plant anatomies and their cycles of life and decay, as well as the memory of seeing millions of sunlit stones in the river behind her home. This became the basis for a mysterious vision that generated her most intimate collages, assemblages and sculptures. This thematic pair eventually underlies Kusama’s exploration of the mystery and the unknown.
While the retrospective continues to celebrate achievements of the avant-garde artist, a recent fashion collaboration has been enjoying quite a viral moment. Kusama’s collaboration with the French luxury brand Louis Vuitton goes beyond the canon of contemporary art and once again demonstrates her penchant for the recurring expression of ‘infinity’ in her work. Chong trips down Kusama’s history as he shares over a conversation how the artist was always ahead of her time. “The time when Kusama was doing quite scandalous public performances with groups of hippies; she was in the middle of a wave of counter cultural movement of sexual revolution and liberation! At this point, she knew how to use and manipulate the media, a time way before the internet age,” he says. Well, the term influencer wasn’t coined back then, but that was the role the Japanese artist was essentially playing. Additionally, in the late 60s, she married art and commerce with a brand that produced wearable art. This exhibition also showcases four such tunics with net patterns embedded on them. Chong adds, "At that stage, it was partially detrimental to the contemporary artist’s career. Even after pop art was born, commercial space was not critically looked upon in the art establishment. This is why she also lost her footing within the New York art milieu." However, this certainly demonstrates that almost 50 years before her first collaboration with LV in 2012, the artist had already tried to do it herself. So, in many ways Kusama had already conceptually pioneered a collaborative effort wherein art meets fashion.
Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now reflects on how revolutionary the artist has been in many ways in her personal and professional struggles. From commenting on mental health to physical phobias such as sexuality in a conservative society in the 1950s, Kusama never shied away from being the profound person she is. While conversations of mental health come to the forefront today in a post-pandemic world, this is truly symbolic of how Kusama was so much ahead of her time by decades. Curator Yoshitake signs off saying, "My hope for viewers is to experience the vast breadth and depth of Kusama’s artistic practice, which not only encapsulates polka dots, pumpkins, and infinity mirror rooms, but their genesis and evolution, and the deep philosophies that guided their emergence and existence in the world. Ultimately, my hope is that viewers will come out with a profound understanding of Kusama that is transformative through seeing this retrospective.”
'Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now' is on display at West Gallery, The Studio, Main Hall, Lightwell, Found Space at M+ in Hong Kong till May 14, 2023.