Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective at the Tate Modern marks the artist’s largest exhibition in the UK and plunges viewers into the world she has created for over fifty years. As one of the most prominent contemporary Japanese artists, Kusama broke from her traditional academic training early on, taking queues from Surrealism and becoming a forerunner to the Pop Art movement. The show brings together a huge body of her work, giving a full sense of the meandering styles that she completely transformed repeatedly throughout her career. It shows examples of an incredible range in the use of different mediums, whilst keeping thematic continuity throughout.
The first few rooms of the exhibit hammer home Kusama’s use of repetition from the very beginning of her career. She began exploring form through the representation of natural phenomena, examples of which are seen in her works from the 50s: Phosphorescence in Daytime, Flower Buds and The Germ. Her earliest drawings show a complexity and attention to detail that ties all of her work through the decades together. During the mid-50s she began creating her series of Infinity Nets. This series, her first foray into large-scale canvases, is comprised of mostly white paint dotted and swirled onto the canvas in order to create subtle patterns. Hung all together in one room, the Infinity Nets series takes on an absorbing quality. Upon first glance, each of the canvases looks completely white; however, a closer look reveals the painstaking detail and formal complexity Kusama applied to the paintings. Her stamina in repetition is striking, something that gets carried on throughout the work we see especially later in her career as a painter and sculptor.
Following an interest in sculpture, Kusama created her next series, dubbed her Accumulations. These works, inspired by Kusama’s relationships with Donald Judd, Eva Hesse and Joseph Cornell, take up most of the floor space of the exhibition, with others hung high above the viewer’s eye level. Off to one side of the Accumulations, the installation of Aggregation: one thousand boats show has been recreated. Its original mounting marked the first of many environments she would come to create for her audiences. As the first example of this type of work, it commands attention. Placed under a spotlight in the center of the room is a boat covered in cloth phalluses, surrounded by walls cloaked in black and white images of the sculpture. By giving this piece its own room and by displaying it in its original state, the Tate bridges the work’s original context with its contemporary effect.
During this time, clearly influenced by her relationship with Joseph Cornell, Kusama began creating collages. The works hung emphasize yet another shift in her oeuvre, this time using found objects and images to create her work instead of painting or drawing it on her own. Accumulation of Face No. 2 (1962), Accumulation of Nets (1961) and Airmail Stickers are all examples of this next phase and clearly anticipate the use of recognizable people and symbols in the Pop Art movement that would shortly follow. Deeply affected in 1972 by Cornell’s death, Kusama’s collages began taking a dark turn, mostly comprising of black backgrounds and images of bugs.
Walking into the last four rooms of the show, there seems to be a renewed awakening in the palette that Kusama chose to paint in. Having gone from the ’70s and her darkened color scheme to the confined white and silver sculptures later on, her paintings from the late ’80s again seem to look back at her Infinity Nets with their sense of repetition, but this time she has created them in bright bursts of neon pink, yellow and green. The attention to detail shown when looking at these works close up is staggering.
Continuing with the theme of taking movements of her own and revisiting them throughout her career, Kusama began once again to create environments for her viewers in the late ’90s. I’m Here, but Nothing is comprised of a living and dining room covered in neon dot stickers and illuminated only by black light, making everything dimly glow. The contrast between this room’s mood and the brightly lit galleries before throws the viewer into what can be imagined as Kusama’s own mind. Having moved back to Japan in 1973 following ill health, Kusama would admit herself into a mental institution five years later where she resides to the present day. Faint sounds of Kusama singing comes out of the television placed in the corner, while pictures of the artist are placed on the bookshelves. From the darkness we emerge again into the light. The last room of paintings contains her most current works, hung from floor to ceiling. Yet again bursting with color, they seem altogether more cheerful than the works she created two decades before. The biographical link becomes clear when we consider that the artist has recently begun working in a studio that is separate from her institution, and perhaps more inspiring.
Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, the last room of the exhibit, is the magnum opus. From the mid ’60s onward Kusama became obsessed with the idea of depicting infinite space, and in this installation the room is entirely mirrored, with colored glowing lights suspended and changing color at different intervals. Created specifically for Tate Modern, this installation of her mirrored rooms is the largest of its kind. Easily the most absorbing of her “experiences,” this space allows the viewer to become a part of the exhibit, with the reflections of everyone in the space reflected endlessly.
This retrospective not only successfully gives the viewer a survey of Kusama’s wide-ranging work, but also immerses you into her obsession with repetition and created environments. A groundbreaking artist, the exhibit brings you physically and mentally into the space, an admirable accomplishment for such a massive exhibition.
9 February—5 June, 2012