One room is invaded by countless brightly colored polka dots on gargantuan whimsical tulip sculptures; another equally yellow room is populated by a horde of black dots from ceiling to floor.
It is a dizzying experience for those uninitiated in the works of Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. The octonegerian, 88 this year, is a major figure in the art world who enjoys a cult-like following for her infinity nets, dots and phallic artworks. She is also Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist and represented the country at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
Kusama’s new works from the ongoing painting series “My Eternal Soul” are on display for the first time in the world at National Gallery Singapore, a public art gallery on the island, from now till September. The exhibition is the largest survey of her work in Southeast Asia, with over 120 artworks spanning seven decades of her career.
Explaining the idea behind the exhibition, Adele Tan, a co-curator of the exhibition says that Kusama serves as an effective introduction to different art movements.
“We are using Kusama as a stepping stone to explore other art movements that may have left an impact on Asia, which is our focus at the National Gallery Singapore,” says Tan.
She adds: “Kusama is special given her long history, her connection to key 20th century art movements such as Surrealism, Pop and Minimalism, as well as being one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.”
To date, Kusama has amassed a vast body of work that cuts across different disciplines – filmmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, fashion, poetry, fiction and public spectacles.
The process of curating Kusama’s work took one year and involved multiple parties – the three galleries representing Kusama, her studio, private lenders, public institutions as well as the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).
“We made a selection of works from the 1950s to the present, tracing Kusama’s use of nets and dots, which have become her iconic motifs; her strategies of repetition and immersion as seen in her infinity mirror rooms and large-scale installations such as Narcissus Garden; and her engagement with the body through installation, performance, sculpture and painting,” Tan shares.
The Kusama evolution
Born in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture in Japan in 1929, Kusama is the youngest daughter of an affluent seedling merchant family. When she started painting at the age of 10, Kusama was already using dots and nets as motifs to make paintings in watercolors, pastels and oil.
Childhood for Kusama was an unhappy period.
In an interview with Financial Times, the grand dame of avant-garde art called her parents “a real pain”.
At the same time, Kusama also experienced hallucinations where flowers with human-like facial expressions would speak to her. During such periods, she would rush home to create artworks.
It also did not help that her father was a serial philanderer and (in the same Financial Times interview) she claims that her mother often sent her to spy on his sexual exploits. This experience traumatized Kusama and caused her to develop a permanent fear of the male organ and sex which she subsequently channeled into creating phalluses to overwhelm her fears.
“I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this process ‘obliteration’,” she told the FT.
When the war ended in 1948, Kusama took a course in Nihonga, in Kyoto. Nihonga is a term for a traditional Japanese painting that uses silk, paper, wood or plaster which started during the Meiji Period.
Unfortunately, Kusama disliked the rigidities of Nihonga and she started learning cubism and surrealism from magazines. She also started correspondence with the famous American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who she credits for giving her the courage to go to New York in 1957.
In New York, Kusama exhibited her large paintings, soft sculptures and environmental sculptures that use electric lights and mirrors. Soft sculptures are made of non-rigid and bendable materials like cloth, plastic and fibres, while environmental sculptures create or change the environment for the viewers.
In summarizing how Kusama’s work evolved throughout her career, Tan says, “When in New York and Europe in the 1960s, Kusama’s works aligned with the avant-garde and counter-cultural impulses of her peers. Then when she returned to Japan and voluntarily committed herself into a mental hospital in the 1970s, she began to experiment with box constructions as a result of a reduced work space and also started to write and publish fiction and poetry.”
It is also worth noting that there is no one movement or style that Kusama cleaves to. She is someone who will respond to her immediate surroundings and the social climate of the time, adds Tan.
No matter how Kusama’s work evolves, one thing remains constant – the intensity of her focus when she works. That’s something of which she herself is acutely aware. As she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2016: “I am an artist. My work is my life. I have so much I want to do [that] I am determined to live until I am 300 years old. Each day I create a new world by making my art. I will never run out of ideas. All I hope to do in the time left is to turn as many of them into concrete forms as possible.”
Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow at the National Gallery Singapore runs from June 9 – September 3, 2017.