“One day I was looking at a red flower-patterned table cloth on a table, and then when I looked up, I saw the ceiling, the window panes and the pillars completely covered with the same red flower patterns.”
– Yayoi Kusama, Extract from “The Struggle and Wanderings of My Soul” 1975
Pop and Contemporary Fine Art gallery brings together a small but vibrant collection of Yayoi Kusama paintings and silk screens of objects and scenes replete with her trademark dots and infinity nets which have been known to represent her psychosomatic anxiety.
Having found her surroundings and her very being obliterated by patterns and reduced to nothingness, avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has had to live with such hallucinations since she was a child. Unable to run away from these persistent visions, Kusama began painting them as an instinctive or even primitive means of self therapy leading her to study the traditional Nihonga style of painting as a young adult. Nevertheless, the exciting American art scene beckoned and after corresponding with artist Georgia O’Keefe, who duly advised caution, Kusama left for New York in 1958 with very little money and found herself in the thick of political and social unrest. She did, however, debut quite successfully in 1959 with a solo show at Brata Gallery, exhibiting large scale Dots and Infinity Nets paintings which were unlike anything seen before.
Apart from the Cold War, the 1960’s were a time of incipient resentment towards the American government who continued sending heavy militia to South Vietnam and a young, educated generation rose to challenge the societal status quo in policies concerning gay and female rights. Equal rights for black and white were demanded in 1963 when 200,000 people demonstrated in Washington. The tumultuous 60’s also witnessed the artist community mirroring this discontentment over the formalist tradition as defined by influential American critic Clement Greenberg and presented an alternate course of “Concept Art” where art would exist within a social, philosophical and dematerialized context.
Kusama fit right into the renegade atmosphere, found her first love in Donald Judd, and took to confronting feminine and sexuality issues long before the vocabulary of feminist critique came into being, especially with her phallic installation from her Accumulations series in 1962. The only female artist showing with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Morris, George Segal, James Rosenquist and Richard Smith at Green gallery in New York, Kusama unflinchingly confronted critics whose initial reaction was to avoid looking at or talking about the installation altogether, at least in print.
Her 1966 stint at the Venice Biennale shocked the organizers when they found Kusama, looking exotic in a Kimono, selling plastic mirrored balls (1,500 in total) to the public from her installation titled Narcissus Garden under a sign that read “Your Narcissism for Sale, Lira 1,200”. Causing an outright scandal, her subversive tactics exposed the Biennale’s economic undercurrent and the inevitable, logical merger of contemporary art with commerce. Towards the late 60s, Kusama orchestrated numerous nude “social demonstrations”, one of them in front of the New York Stock Exchange, exhorting passersby to “OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS”, and others at the Statue of Liberty, at the Alice in Wonderland Statue in Central Park and at the Museum of Modern Art.
After more than a decade of intense artistic and political involvement with the New York art scene, the party wound down for Kusama and she headed back to Japan in 1973, retreating to write novels, short stories and poetry. Periodically undergoing psychiatric treatments, she voluntarily checked herself into Seiwa Hospital in Shinjuku in 1977, retained a studio a short walk away and returned to constructing her signature dots and Infinity Nets.
It is after this point that Pop and Contemporary Fine Art present their collection starting with a rare and ethereal water colour executed in 1978. Referencing Japanese landscape and incorporating her polka dotted hallucinations; Mountain and Cloud (pictured below) is executed with a seemingly careless elegance and unlikely colour palette perhaps echoing her melancholic solitude. Sombre and calm, the water colour from the mountain bleeds into the clouds to produce a wet, misty effect punctuated by a few forlorn coniferous trees.
Her later years see her returning to organic forms- the pumpkin being an especially recurring motif, is vividly coloured and fastidiously dotted in an optically alluring pattern, instances of which are shown at the gallery. The bland fruit, all that was available in war time Japan, is recreated endlessly, in all its imperfect forms either as a benign but potent object suspended in an Infinity Net space and time or as a monstrosity ready to consume the universe. This potency has been demonstrated in several of her installations where the dotted pumpkin is placed within a 4 dimensionally mirrored room which reflects it in perpetuity and overwhelms the spectator completely.
The exhibition also hosts a couple of glittering silk screens representing inanimate objects in a nod to Still Life where flowers in their vase seem to be coming alive, blooming aggressively while vegetables and mushrooms seem to defy gravity and float from their bowl towards the viewer. In Kusama’s mind, Space, Time and everything in between are entirely obliterated by the energy of an invisible universe where the individual ceases to exist; this is perhaps the closest we can get to experiencing Kusama’s hallucinations first hand, to the point of dizziness.
Whether Kusama is a Pop, abstract expressionist, minimalist or feminist artist is not up for debate as she has not allowed her art to be monopolized by various ‘isms’, positioning herself, by default no doubt, as an “outsider”. A head strong woman hailing from a traditional and conservative Japanese family who despite mental illness, conquered the male dominated, parochial art scene in the 60s; Kusama fabricated soft sculptures before Claes Oldenberg and undoubtably influenced Andy Warhol with her repetitive motifs while also being ahead of her time in confronting issues on gender and sexuality in that decade.
At the age of 81 years, Yayoi Kusama continues to thrill audiences with her public sculptures and installations. Renowned museums throughout the world have hosted her retrospective exhibitions, solo and group shows since the late nineties; she was honoured by being the first individual and woman to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993, a stark contrast to her 1966 appearance where she was chided by the organizers for selling her art. The 2006 Singapore Biennale, the first biennale for the city, also experienced Kusama’s art along the popular shopping belt on Orchard Road where whole rows of trees were dotted in red and white, incidentally the country’s national colours.
Along with the elegant exhibition at Pop and Contemporary Fine Art, do make it a point to see a rather spectacular Kusama installation on the roof of Orchard Central. The stunning ensemble titled “Let’s go to a Paradise of Glorious Tulips” (2009) features the artist as a young girl, as Alice herself in a dotted, optimistic Wonderland.
Ascension of Polka Dots on Trees, Singapore Biennale 2006
© Photo: Haupt & Binder
This exhibition is on from 07 August – 28 August at Pop and Contemporary Fine Art Gallery (http://www.popandcontemporaryart.com/), 390 Orchard Road, Palais Renaissance #03-12 Singapore
Bharti Lalwani is a freelance writer and curator based in Singapore.
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