In evocative and ethereal style, Yayoi Kusama brings her unique vision to Tate Modern for a major and remarkable retrospective, in an exhibition supported by Louis Vuitton that collects painting, sculpture, video and of course polka dots spanning an entire career.
Standing in the Infinity Mirror Room, caught between swathes of red light, green light, blue light and darkness, your initial reaction, post-ecstasy, is most likely to photograph it. Mesmerised, you capture yourself in all these colours, wondering whether you’ve been here before, unaware there’s water all around you, your eyes are drawn to a corner, or the horizon, or infinity. Eventually someone else comes; you acknowledge them and shuffle out, the fibres of your jumper caught in the glow of the exit. You look at these photos later, in the cafe or on the train, and maybe they came out perfectly, maybe they didn’t come out at all. You won’t mind though, you won’t be sure, but you’ll think it was amazing.
Such a moment of transience and eternity provides a fitting conclusion to Yayoi Kusama’s lush and dream-flavoured retrospective at the Tate Modern. Yet spectacular and beguiling as it is, it is a moment very much set in context by the rest of the works on show. This much is evident in the first room, bringing together some of the artist’s earliest paintings, which nonetheless show a fascination for the dots and ambiguous spaces in which Kusama has found her infinity. Crafted out of household paints, sand and even seed sacks from her parent’s business, these intimately apocalyptic canvases play with the conventions of painting with a mystery perhaps unfound amongst her western counterparts. If the exhibition has been conceived as a series of immersive environments, then here we find its genesis; paintings that invite you in and share with you unique ways of seeing and understanding.
Somewhere between these two poles, and fourteen rooms, we can trace a journey; through location, (Tokyo, New York and the psychiatric hospital in which she has voluntarily resided for the last 40 years), but also through medium and even being. For if her journey is one of self-obliteration, of obliteration of the self, then the various ways in which she has explored this is its most remarkable aspect. Embracing both 60s counterculture and the changing attitudes to art it inspired, Kusama’s work from this period shows acute understanding of concerns of body and race – be it walking through New York in vibrant Japanese dress or posing erotically, provocatively bare in a magazine. Yet for an artist who has always so carefully stage-managed her image, it is tantalising and perhaps not misguided to compare these media works to her later mirror environments. Whether the subject is trapped or emboldened in these is perhaps the central question, though you sense Kusama remains most beautifully both.
Yayoi Kusama at the Tate Modern runs until 5th June 2012. To coincide with the retrospective several of Kusama’s kaleidoscopic flower sculptures will be on show in the Louis Vuitton, Bond Street Maison… Hop to it, shop and see!
Text: Harry Burke