Exhibition Review by Philip Ginsberg
The current travelling retrospective of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama – after it leaves Tate Modern, catch it in Paris, Madrid or New York – literally sparkles with engaging and diverse art. The show lays out the whole career of the 83-year old artist before us, showing us both her own trajectory, as well as how she engaged with some of the most important artists and art movements of the century after her arrival in the United States as an artworld outsider in 1957. From painting to photography to whole-room installations filled with twinkling lights and infinity mirrors, there are more than enough stimuli for us to contemplate, interpret and chase for themes and connections.
Yet frustratingly, Kusama’s art is normally never discussed on its own terms. Instead, the critics’ common consensus has been to speak about Kusama herself first, and then filter her art through the character they have created. More specifically, writers and broadcasters like to explain Kusama’s work in terms of the mental health issues for which she has been treated full-time since the 1970s. They take care to mention that she lives and works in a mental hospital. They emphasise that making art is simply her way of dealing with her illness. Apparently, they say, she has even “nurtured” her own “insanity” (The Guardian) in order to create her works. In this way, they reduce Kusama’s art to a mere expression of her so-called madness.
Thus the critics rehearse the well-known journalistic trope of the deranged genius, on this occasion in the form of a visual artist. This cliché is one that our (self-styled) popular thought-leaders might have expected to have overcome in the 21st Century, now that science has robustly complicated the idea of what it means to be ‘mad’. Unsurprisingly then, their angle is superficial and unhelpful – which becomes especially clear when we manage to ignore their interpretations and tune into the art itself.
This is particularly important to do in Yayoi Kusama’s case because, when we interpret the art before we construct the person – and therefore arrive at a version of Kusama that is anchored in her works, instead of anchored in her life – we not only begin to challenge the idea of what it means to be a mad artist, but an artist as such. In its sweeping and eclectic overview of one artist’s career, Tate Modern’s exhibition thus enables us to question what it really means to classify any creator and what, if anything, might be suspicious about the processes of (high-) cultural acceptance, genre-building in cultural production and canonisation.
Two works in particular exemplify these questions.
The full-room installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show from 1963 is one of the most striking works on display in the show. It consists of a found wooden rowing boat that is painted completely in white. Its surface is completely covered with stuffed cotton phalluses that are twice as large as cucumbers and also white, bending and jutting out in all directions. There is a pair of white high heels in the vessel, too. The room itself is covered in a total of 999 black-and-white posters of the same boat.
Given its simple manufacture and disturbingly clear imagery, Aggregation thus invites us to ask what qualifies it as art instead of as outsider art. Analogously, the overwhelming amount of phalluses and images of the boat encourage us to interrogate the theme of obsessiveness in art. Is their repetition enough reason to diagnose Kusama as a mad artist? As the exhibition brochure dutifully tells us, Aggregation’s serial posters could be compared to those of Andy Warhol, who may have been eccentric, but who was also an ingenious analyst of the Zeitgeist and a shrewd businessman.
The final piece in the retrospective, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, from 2011, is an even more immersive installation. In contrast with Aggregation, it is clinically precise and technically sophisticated, a three metre high, six metre long cube with an entrance at one end and an exit at the other. Its walls, ceiling and most of its floor are completely covered in mirrors, except for the meandering path that leads viewers through the room. The darkness is broken only by what seem to be thousands of tiny, floating lights at various heights, reflected endlessly by the mirrors. The lights all glow in the same rich colours, such as purple, red or yellow, which they change in unison at varying intervals.
Overall, the smooth glass and electronics of Mirrored Room seem calculative and post-minimalist in their restrained emotionality. The installation would fit well into a commercial contemporary art gallery. Unlike Aggregation, it does not hint at obsessiveness. Viewed alongside Aggregation and the rest of the varied works in the show, it not only proves that there are more sides to Yayoi Kusama than arbiters of culture would have us believe, but more variety to art itself than they might feel comfortable with.