Monday, October 5, 2009
David Cross visits the Yayoi Kusama show
Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years
City Gallery Wellington
27 September - 7 February 2009
Wellington artist Bec Coogan once told me she had Yayoi Kusama’s name tattooed on her body. While unable then (and still) to vouch for the veracity of this, Coogan’s demonstrably clear Kusama obsession led me to believe it was likely she was not just winding me up. Kusama, whose ambitious survey show has opened at Wellington City Gallery, is clearly a cult figure for many artists who are drawn to her distinctive language of dots, inflatables and mirrored forms employed across a stunning variety of media. Massively libidinal and at the same time strangely asexual, Kusama is an artist whose practice has interrogated the psychic and sensory possibilities inherent in repetitive forms and motifs. Yet for every space of child-like pleasure she has created, there is a disturbing edge, a sense of obsessive excess born of a desperate compulsion. A Hansel and Gretel-like quality is ever-present in Kusama’s work, which has ensured that underneath the candy colours there has always been a brooding disquiet keeping the frivolity in check.
The City Gallery show brings together a range of work from all periods with a particular focus on recent work since 2000. It does not have the sweep of a retrospective but develops particular threads across different bodies of work. There are a few choice mirror installations together with the dot rooms, and a number of films from her libertine Happenings in the 1960s where, following Carolee Schneemann, her performers recreate action painting as sexually lived experience. These ‘seminal’ pieces are especially compelling and it is impressive to see them recreated in a broader context of related work.
Mirrored Years is a particularly taxing show on the gallery guards. It’s not just the legion of kids wanting to put the slipper into each biomorphic inflatable they come across, but nearly every adult I observed could not resist prodding the objects: searching for concrete evidence that the visual cacophony is more than a trompe l’oeil. The resultant tension of haptic denial in works such as Dots Obsession Day/Night (2009) ratchets up an already peculiar ambience so that pleasure is kept at a sanitised distance. In many of the works Kusama perversely builds spaces that envelop the senses, suggesting the possibility of complete immersion without allowing such an immersion to ever be sufficiently consummated through touch. This division has clearly become more pronounced in the later work. Earlier happenings captured on film such as Self-Obliteration (1968) highlight an interest in drawing performers and audiences into a total work of art, erasing the boundaries between body, object and space. Yet such an imperative gradually leeches out of the work to be replaced by a lexicon of repetitive shapes, objects and spaces that while visually discordant, are highly controlled and controlling.
Certainly the earlier installations feel more engaging and less programmatic. Infinity Mirror Room originally made in 1965, is a classic piece capturing that 60s alignment of phenomenology, minimalist reflective surfaces and proto-psychedelic mind games. Even in our world of ever increasing spatial simulation, the antiquated devices of light and mirrors transport the viewer to a weirdly compelling space. Only the 45-second time limit and the incursion of the soundtrack from a video next door limit the experience.
When Kusama’s work takes on more mundane dimensions such as in the installation I’m here, but Nothing (2000), a recreated 50s Japanese lounge room with fluroresecent light and dots, the results are disappointing. The work is buried in a literalism that is heavy-handed and visually underwhelming. Similarly problematic is Walking On the Sea of Death (1981) an installation which employs the artist’s famous soft sculpture boat made up of phalluses and bundles of grapes. Instead of locating the work in a closed off/immersive space, the boat is marooned in a half annexed open space that feels too contingent and literally open to connote anything of real significance.
Perhaps this is the rub with Kusama. The work functions best when it is both immersive and seperated from its surroundings and literal connections to the ‘real’ world: when it is configured as a world unto itself. Her unfortunate tree dots outside the Hayward Gallery in winter this year are a salient reminder of the pitfalls of overextending a vocabularly.
Mirrored Years, while being too focused on the weaker late works of the artist, covers a lot of valuable ground. Its strength as an exhibition lies in the way it locates Kusama as a great trans-disciplinary artist whose breadth of practice is perhaps only matched by Nauman, Beuys and Warhol. Working at the forefront of so many disciplines, especially installation, Kusama is an artist whose appeal to other artists transcends any one generation. Having said this, the long queues at City Gallery in the first week suggest her greatest success is in successfully bridging the notorious chasm between critical acclaim and popular appeal.
The images of works are in descending order: Dots For Peace and Love (2009); Dots Obsession Day (2009); Infinity Mirror Room (Fireflies On The Water)(2000); I’m Here, But Nothing (2001); Walking on The Sea of Death (1981); Invisible Life (2001). (All images courtesy of the artist, Kusama Studio, Victoria Miro Gallery London [except for the Yayoi Kusama public artwork at the top] and Ota Fine Arts Tokyo.) Dots Obsession Day is at Kennedy Centre, Washington. The rest are in the Kusama Studio.