By Eva Wong Nava
(1390 words, 14-minute read)
Pumpkins, phalli, polka dots, stainless steel balls. These are the iconographies of YAYOI KUSAMA (b. 1929), the influential Japanese artist, who is equally famous for her commission by Louis Vuitton to imprint her [in]famous dots on their emblematic handbags and clothing line.
Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, entitled YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, is curated by Russell Storer and Adele Tan and showcases some pieces that have not yet been seen outside Singapore. The exhibition is a collaboration between National Gallery Singapore and Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. This is the Gallery’s third ambitious international collaboration and its first single artist exposition. As Yayoi Kusama is a renowned name, the Gallery is expecting record numbers of visitors and timed ticketing will be introduced to manage the crowds.
There is a happy ring to the exhibition’s title (Fig 2). However, Kusama’s art is far from happy, despite its bright hues. To interrogate Kusama’s work is to enter into her psyche, a psyche replete with angst that speaks of the artist’s psychosis. Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is the first exhibition in Southeast Asia showcasing Kusama’s seven decade oeuvre ranging from installations to video clips to monochromatic sketches to multicoloured sculptures, and of course her famous pumpkins to rooms filled with psychedelic lights (Fig 3) and polka dots on canvases.
Gallery A (Singtel Special Exhibitions Gallery) contains her earlier pieces: canvases filled with painted dots, some monochromatic, others in multifarious hues of pinks, blues and yellows. Yellow predominates her colour scheme; the repetitive lattice patterns, signifying nets, have been consistent features in Kusama’s practice since the 1950s. One is either caught in nets or left to slip through them. For Kusama, nets are double entendres, where one is either inside or outside of them. Kusama herself is both an insider/outsider in the art world. Additionally, to read Kusama’s art, one must be aware of the double entendres that she espouses.
Her earlier works, made in her studio at home in Matsumoto, were created after her studies in nihonga (Japanese painting). However, Kusama found nihonga constraining and she veered towards the freedom of expression found in avant-garde art. Kusama’s expansive oeuvre reflects the influences of Surrealism and Dada. However, she prefers to call her art ‘Kusama Art’, stubbornly refusing to be categorised. She has an extensive practice, ranging from abstract expressionism to pop art expressed through her sculptures, collages and paintings. At 88, she is still creating in her studio, which she set up near the psychiatric hospital which has been her home since 1977.
A self portrait (1952) reminded me strangely of aboriginal art in its patterned arrangement of Seurat-esque pointes (Fig. 4). An eye alludes to its genre, confirmed by its title, Self Portrait. There is really no sign of the artist in this rendition of self: the self is obliterated by the dots that fill a ‘Christmas tree’, its shape recognisable by its triangular phallic protrusions. Eyes, resembling and representing the vagina never leave Kusama’s art; the exhibition showcases her artistic development and the incorporation of these organic shapes as she continues working (Fig 5). The yang to these eyes are the weaving tubular shapes on canvases or growing from containers. These phalli represent Kusama’s preoccupation with the male organ which she finds oppressive. She works through her obsession with them by representing them in her art (Fig. 6). Psychologically, Kusama is really expressing her disgust with sexual intercourse after a childhood spent spying on her father’s extra-marital affairs.
The viewer is privy to Kusama’s psychic processes. These are symbols of the unconscious, first discovered by Freud in his psychoanalysis of neuroses. Signs of neuroses pepper all of Kusama’s pieces, reflecting her unconscious anxiety with the corporeal, which begins with her own obsession with ‘self-obliteration’. A silver mannequin stands covered in protrusions; she is being eaten away by the phallic organisms growing out of her skin. Here, Kusama’s message is powerful: the obliteration of the female by patriarchy.
‘Style originates in character; it is an expression of individuality and subjectivity’ – this is evident in all of Kusama’s work. Her pieces reflect her obsession with (her)self and her place in the universe: for someone so preoccupied with the obliteration of self expressed in her ‘Infinity Nets’ series, where canvases are smothered edge to edge with circles of paint, Kusama is very aware of integrating herself into the world. She is purposeful in how she does this: with a unique style that has become her emblem and by insisting on others crediting her work with ‘[©YAYOI KUSAMA]’ (sic); the capped font signifying self importance.
Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets No. 2 (1998), is a figurative application of Kusama’s preoccupation with self obliteration. A fibreglass statue of Venus de Milo, Goddess of Love, covered in yellow polka dots stands in front of a monochrome canvas also filled with yellow dots. Upon prolonged viewing, the statue starts to blend into the canvas background obliterating her presence as she becomes buried in a sea of repetitive dots. The monotonous repetitivity of dotting, circling, lining, twirling – actions underpinning boredom – encapsulate her anxieties on female oppression. Every piece captures Kusama’s rebellion against authority, patriarchy and social conformity (Fig. 7).
I hear a viewer exclaiming as she passes a large four-panelled canvas covered with dots in tones of blue, green and pink. Pink dots are formed unevenly throughout, but the eye starts to see blue striations amongst patches of greens. The effect is nothing short of hypnotic, as one stares into the canvas for a prolonged period. Curiously, the exclamation is one of fear, as I hear mumbles of “how scary” and spy the viewer shaking her head. Could Kusama Art not be for the trypophobic? The dots on this piece, Transmigration, start to remind me of the patterns on scabbing skin as the wound perforates when wet (Fig. 8).
One salient characteristic that I discovered in Yayoi Kusama is her relentless entrepreneurial savvy. The Gallery’s City Hall Chamber has been converted into a gallery for this exhibition. Here, the visitor is permitted to walk into a cavernous space transformed into a garden of 1,500 stainless steel balls. The installation entitled Narcissus Garden is a homage to wordplay and the self (Fig. 9). The stainless steel balls reflect the viewers who participate in their own self obliteration by being immersed in a reflective pool of multiple selves. Kusama created this installation in 1966, for the 33rd Venice Biennale. Her purpose was to connect art with daily life and to make it accessible to the public and the less wealthy. She was present at the Biennale, dressed in a kimono selling each steel ball for US$2.00. She promoted the sale with a placard – “YOUR NARCISSUS FOR SALE” (sic) accompanied by flyers of art critic Herbert Read’s praise of her work. This performance caused a scandal in the art world, with Kusama being accused of illegally hawking her work, although the act of selling was part of the art itself – the art of performance (Fig. 10).
Kusama is quite the performer, as a video installation, Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict, shows. This work is a reference to her semi-autobiographical novel Manhattan Suicide Addict (1978). Her novel was a response to the Japanese art world’s indifference to her work when she returned there after many years in America. In this video, Kusama addresses the viewer directly, singing in monotonous Japanese; her voice is as hypnotic as her dots. This video installation has appeared in many forms since its first production in 1999. The National Gallery’s presentation of it uses large flanking mirrors where Kusama’s image as well as the viewer’s are seen ad infinitum.
As I meander along the galleries, the polka dots begin to have their hypnotic effect on me. They represent the world of Kusama’s hallucinations, hallucinations that she has had since childhood. I begin to see exactly how insignificant I am in this universe, a small dot in comparison to the vastness of space and time. However, I also gain a sense of self importance as I see my image reflected back to me through mirrors and shiny surfaces. I wander and wonder about the message that Kusama Art is communicating.
YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the heart of the rainbow is on show at the National Gallery Singapore from 9 June to 3 September 2017.
Guest Contributor Eva Wong Nava is a published writer, former food blogger and emerging art historian who combines her love for art with writing personal reviews and anecdotes. She has led art tours at various institutions and has taught writing using works of art as talking points and inspiration. Her flash fiction is published in various places, including Jellyfish Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her art writings have appeared in several independent arts magazines and platforms. She is dedicated to making writing about art an accessible activity for future generations.
Eva has a degree in English Literature and Language from the University of Hull, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education from the Institute of Education, London, and an Art Writing qualification from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She is currently completing her dissertation for a Masters in Art History with the Open University, United Kingdom, on Byzantine art and its relationship with the Italian Renaissance. She plans to write about the Renaissance later.