Wednesday 4 March 2009

On Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama describes her oeuvre as a 'hymn of praise to humanity', which all sounds very nice on paper, or on wall as is the case in her retrospective 'Mirrored Years' at Sydney's MCA.  The huge banner with the, almost, octogenarian artist in dayglo pink and polka dots gives more than a hint of what to find inside, there's a lot of dots and a lot of the artist's biography.  Normally I would resist comment on the biographical, innately suspicious of extrinsic explanation, however in the case of Kusama all I can say is 'I'm not the one who started it'.

The biography is central, if not to the art, then to the justification of its worth.  After classical art training and hallucinations as a child in Japan, and a correspondence with Georgia O'Keefe, Kusama travels to New York and becomes a doyenne of pop art, op art, conceptual and performance art.  Along the way there's a lot of polka dots, nudity and art elite friends and lovers, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Joseph Cornell amongst others.  Then comes a return to Japan and psychiatric hospital, where she has since continued to live by choice.  Since then there's been a critical resurrection together with claims and counter claims about who did what first with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldengurg.  None of this is allowed to ever be incidental to the exhibition, it's written on walls and recorded throughout.

The 'Mirrored Years' begin on exiting the MCA's lift and walking through 'Invisible Life' (2002) a piece that creates a maze of the gallery's entrance.   The work is created by dozens of convex mirrors spaced regularly across the white walls, whilst it's what you expect to find on entering a show with such a name it's surprisingly recessive, the mirrors neither perform any particular optical magic (as they do elsewhere) nor do they genuinely disorientate or obliterate (a favourite Kusama word).  The initial effect is that one has walked into the set of a 1960's sci-fi series, something rather less than the title promises.  It must be said that the MCA have staged the show beautifully, devoting the fourth floor to successive rooms, big and small, that allows one to feel the spatial and sensory impact of Kusama's work.

The mirrors occur again, in the meandering 'Narcissus Garden' hundreds of mirrored balls, perhaps a foot across, that spread like weeds along, around and through the North side of the floor.  Clearly one has only to read the title and see one to get the point of the piece, but the fact that it seems to go on long after it manages to be interesting might hint at a reasonable analogy for Kusama. So, from mirrors to dots.

Whole rooms of dots, dots repeated ad infinitum within mirrored walls, boxes filled with vaguely topographical surfaces covered in dots.  Nothing cold be much more pop, the motif Kusama is most recognised for is said to either represent or document a lifetime of hallucinations.  Claims that these dots 'obliterate' surfaces and self is one half of the essential contradiction of Kusama, just as they change the object upon which they are placed they also shout loudly about the artful way they got there and the woman who placed them.  For an artist supposedly concentrating on the erasure of identity there's an awful lot of celebrity art branding going on with those dots.

In fact the repetitions of her op-art conceptualism feel like a style more than obsession.  One 'Dot Room' piece sees a whole period room recreated and peppered with multi coloured stick-on polka dots over every surface.  The explanation speaks of obliteration and hallucination but in reality it's a meretricious mix of affect and fashionable nihilism.

Of course as an artist operating in the greenhouse of sixties New York it is easy to see how the boundaries between style, manifesto and branding are easily blurred.  So much of her work appears to press the hot buttons of art theory, the penis shapes in her soft sculptures or the obsession with the ultimate object of self-referentiality, the mirror, that one at times feel like you have walked into a pop-art lecture on the aesthetics of the mild transgression that the modern art world thrives upon.

As annoying as all of this is there is pleasure here too, in the shape of 'Fireflies on The Water'.  Another mirrored room where we step onto a promontary going out from the door.  All around is a forest of tendrils hung with LED lights that reflect infinitely from teh walls and from the water that lies still on the floor  .The firefly is an important symbolic feature of Japanese culture, a symbol of sexual love they have also been believed to be the souls of those fallen in battle refusing to leave the field.  The room (if you can get in alone) inspires contemplation whilst also being warm and ennervating.  The sense of a void filled with something impermanent and fragile, whether it is light or energy is quite beautiful.

A room of silkscreen doodles on canvas shows how some of her obsessions and repeated tropes are reminiscent of what we might see in 'outsider art', and given her background of mental illness there's an understandable link.  That outsider position is fiercely cultivated but whilst she might have better claims to it than many middle class art school rebels it is still a dreadful stretch of credulity that one with her starry conceptual art phone book is actually an dotty idiot savant afloat in the art world.  

My problem with Kusama is simply that hers is an art far less concerned with looking than being looked at.  Her work craves attention and knows how to get it, so whatever claims for it on the basis of pathology or theory it remains essentially cold and empty like the mirrored balls strewn on the gallery floor...

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