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Yayoi Kusama Exhibition at Victoria Miro until 30th July

| Art, Free events | 26/05/2016

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By Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

The new exhibitions of Yayoi Kusama‘s work at Victoria Miro‘s galleries at Old Street and Mayfair are a big deal.  Kusama is one of the most important living artists, having heavily influenced the New York avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and still described by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.  

More than that, Kusama’s work represents much of what’s great about modern art: sometimes unarguably stunning in its visual impact and use of modern techniques; at other times, divisive in its understatement and apparent ease of reproduction.

The collection on display in N1 captures this contrast perfectly, showcasing some of her latest sculptures, paintings and mirror room installations to good effect with Kusama’s two key themes – the idea of infinity, and the yellow and black pumpkin motif featuring heavily throughout.  And, although perhaps not to everyone’s taste, the exhibition succeeds in engaging you in an important discussion about what art should mean to both the artist and the viewer.

Yayoi Kusama_Portrait_2014 cInfinite wisdom

The theme of infinity is one Kusama has returned to time and again since arriving in New York from Japan in 1957 to embark on a short but influential and controversial stay.

Marie Laurberg, Curator and Head of Research at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, explains: “The infinite patterns and repetition were originally inspired by Kusama’s view of the seemingly endless ocean on her journey to America.  She incorporated both into her painting style and, before long, they became a concept in themselves.

“Soon, she came to cover the canvass or, in some cases, whole rooms with polka dots, circles or mirrors to create the impression of endless, but not exact or uniform, repetition.  It represents the physical and metaphysical, both the boundless cosmos and the inner darkness that can devour you completely.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 15.33.44This dual representation is at its most obvious in Where the Lights in My Heart Go, a stainless steel cube set in the gallery’s Waterside Garden.

One at a time, visitors are invited inside, where total darkness is only alleviated by the daylight entering through small holes in the walls and rebounding off the mirrored surfaces.

The effect is stunning and disconcerting, bewildering and dizzying, like the universe and the workings of the mind it represents.  When it’s time to leave, it comes almost as a relief.

Internal and external depths are also evident in Chandelier of Grief in Gallery I, which uses a large baroque light-fitting – flickering and pulsing irregularly – to illuminate and project the viewer into endless tunnels of mirrored reflection.  It brings to mind Kusama’s deeply unhappy childhood, beset by terrifying visual and aural hallucinations that pushed her to the brink of suicide.

Smashing pumpkins

The final mirror room – All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins – is quite rightly the poster-child of the exhibition, incorporating her obsession with infinity and another Kusama signature: the pumpkin, or kabocha squash, which grew in the fields surrounding her family home.

KUSA1018_All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins_2016 cWhen Kusama returned to Japan in the 1970s, she chose to use the image as a form of alter-ego, saying the pumpkin’s “general unpretentiousness” appealed to her.  And as you stand before an endless field of the spotted pumpkins, there’s something in this: their dazzling colours and trademark polka dots are softened by their comical shapes.

There’s nothing phallic about them, suggesting that Kusama’s uneasy attitude towards sex – she detested her father’s infidelities but offered Richard Nixon her body if he ended the Vietnam war – may be consigned to the past.

All the Eternal Love may be more benign than the other mirror rooms but it’s no less stunning, turning the small corner of Gallery I into an Aladdin’s cave of a golden splendour.  In fact, the only discomfort you feel is a detached form of loneliness and enclosure.  But when it’s time to move on, you’re less happy to leave.

The yellow and black pumpkin appears elsewhere in the exhibition: in Gallery I’s three large, bronze sculptures (thankfully Kusama refrained from resorting to the scat sculpture she has used in the past) and a painting in Gallery II, which is otherwise dominated by a recent selection from Kusama’s Infinity Nets series.

Casting the net wide

Kusama began the series in the 1950s, using repeated looping brushmarks to create the impression of a mesh which seems to undulate as you move past.  Described as “forging a path between abstract expressionism and minimalism”, these paintings are inevitably where division enters the discussion and some decide modern art isn’t for them.

IMG_7589And, candidly, I agree in some cases.  In fact, with most of the pieces, I find myself looking for meaning but finding only something I’d expect to see in a secondary school collage, on a Jane Norman dress or in a mediocre example of aborigine art.

Then I reach a painting called Infinity-White Nets, produced earlier this year, and I can’t look away from it.  Because this time the effect is compelling: the whites and greys swirl across the painting like a fast-moving cloud, giving the impression of constant change.  Despite patches of grey, suggesting darker times, the turbulence feels peaceful.  If you were looking for deeper meaning, it could represent most people’s lives: a restless journey – mainly good, sometimes bad – but always onwards.

Of course, others will stare at this and feel nothing.  Or they’ll look at other pieces and find something my mind couldn’t.

Either way, art like this engages you in the discussion: what did the artist intend and does that even matter?  We’ll never really know the answer to the first question; as to the second, the art-buying public appears to have spoken: one of the series was sold in 2008 for $5.1m, a record sum for a living female artist.

Yayoi Kusama’s exhibitions can be viewed at Victoria Miro and Victoria Miro Mayfair until 30 July 2016 (admission is free).  For more information, go the galleries’ website: www.victoria-miro.com.

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