The Brilliance of Life, Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern

Text by Matt Swain

Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) is Japan’s best-known living artist. Since the 1940s, she has produced a wealth of work encompassing painting, drawing, sculpture and collage as well as the immersive large-scale installations for which she is renowned. Kusama’s art reflects her unique view of the world and is a product of her life experience over a 60 year period, much of which is represented in the form of hallucinatory visions. This exhibition is a representative sample of her work, focusing on phases and defining moments, each of which are exhibited across fourteen rooms.

Kusama was school-age during the Second World War and her early paintings such as Earth of Accumulation (1950) all possess a dark, oblique feel, a reflection of the state of Japan in the aftermath of war. By contrast, Kusama’s early works on paper possess a subtlety and a broader palette of colours, using ink, pastel, watercolour and gouache. Here, in a series of 30 works on paper, she focuses upon the microscopic detail of natural phenomena as in Flower Bud No 6 (1952) which echoes both Klee and Miró. In the mid 1950’s, Kusama began producing large-scale canvases known as the “Infinity Net” paintings which hint at obsession and minimalism. No.White A-Z (1958-9) typifies this phase with it’s endless repetition of brush strokes.

In the 1960s, having achieved recognition for her paintings, Kusama moved into sculpture. These “Accumulation Sculptures” reflect her involvement in the avant-garde scene in New York at that time. The Man (1963) and Arm Chair (1963) are two dramatic examples of these fabric phallus-covered pop art works which focus predominantly on domestic objects. Continuing this theme, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show is a white-painted fabric phallus-covered rowing boat. The walls, floor and ceiling of this room are covered with posters depicting the same boat, endlessly repeated, a precursor to Warhol’s “cow” wallpaper. It was during the 1960s that Kusama also began to make collages, again focusing on repetition as the central theme. Accumulation of Stamps, 63 (1963) and Air Mail Stickers (1962) both exemplify how infinite repetition of the familiar can achieve a strong degree of abstraction.

The persona of Kusama is key to all of her work and this focus on the artist is prevalent throughout the exhibition. These visual documents of her life and her work are so intrinsically linked, it is impossible to separate one from the other. Walking Piece is a series of colour slides in which Kusama walks the streets of New York appearing to accentuate her status as an outsider by taking a path through empty, industrial areas. There is also a selection of archive promotional material in the form of letters, photographs, fliers and press-cuttings which demonstrate how her intense activity moved beyond the confines of the art gallery and seeped into the culture of the times. Kusama’s Self Obliteration (1968) marked a period of intense experimentation with mysticism and sexuality. This film depicts naked participants body painting and orgy parties set to a psychedelic soundtrack as well as Kusama herself covering animals, plants and a naked male with polka dots and leaves.

In 1977, psychological difficulties led to Kusama voluntarily admitting herself to a psychiatric hospital which she subsequently used as a base to continue working, and where she still lives today. Sculpture and painting were again a key focus. The Clouds (1984) comprises 100 silver and white painted cushions and is a striking example of the multi-part installations she was creating at this time. Kusama’s painting style throughout the 1980s and 1990s centred upon large, brightly coloured canvases with repeated abstract patterns, as in the shocking pink Flame (1992).

The exhibition finishes with her most impressive works. The late 1990s room installation I’m Here, but Nothing (2000), is essentially a dark, furnished living-room which, upon entering, appears to be lit by hundreds of tiny, magical, multi-coloured lights covering the entire space. It is only on closer inspection that you discover the entire room and all of it’s furnishings are covered in fluorescent polka dot stickers glowing in the low light. The polka dots are famously said to represent her dark visions and hallucinations but there is also a playfulness here that is quite enchanting. The impact of the work as a whole is astonishing considering the relative simplicity of the creation and is totally immersive.

Nothing can prepare you though for the The Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011), which depicts infinite space in an astounding and transcendent way. Reflecting surfaces of mirrors and water, hundreds of tiny lightbulbs are mirrored into infinite space offering an other-worldly brightness, flooding you with the most brilliant momentary illusion as if climbing into the stars. The experience of walking down a narrow central pathway offers a level of engagement that goes beyond the boundaries of the known artistic universe and is undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition.

Across the whole exhibition, Kusama’s creative energy is almost overwhelming and the sheer breadth of vision is testament to her output spanning six decades, visually documenting her unique capacity to fascinate. In that journey, she has constantly reinvented herself, repeating patterns of life in her life-long commitment to contemporary art. Her work is intensely autobiographical and she has frequently bared her soul as a form of therapy for her. How fitting then that the exhibition begins with disturbing introspection and ends with infinite beauty.

Yayoi Kusama, 09/02/2012 – 05/06/2012, Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG.


Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.

If you would like to buy this issue, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Better yet call +44 (0) 1904 629 137 or visit the website to subscribe to Aesthetica for a year and save 20% on the printed magazine.