Today I couldn’t resist visiting the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate again. The immersive experience is just so sense tingling and visually luscious that I expect I’ll be there every time I have a spare moment until it finishes on 5th June. (see my previous writing about her here)
The retrospective of this most prominent Japanese female artist showcases her obsessive, polka dot strewn, colourful artworks. As I navigated the show my own passion for dotty and intricate surfaces was piqued, and I became aware that I was walking around the gallery with my eyeballs as close to the canvases as possible. I wanted to zoom in, to understand and become part of these beautiful and painstaking details. When I became saturated with the tiny circles I zoomed out, enjoying the dots from afar – small, dancing, mad things. They imparted a tickling sensation as they shimmered and faded in and out of view.
“…an almost hallucinatory intensity that reflects her unique vision of the world…”
There is a poigniant story and sense of brave adventure to Kusama’s work and life, in which she has overcome times of mental instability as well as many social, cultural and familial obstacles. There has been much written about her journey between Japan, New York and back again. What I want to convey to you here is my own physical experience of the exhibition – I imagine yours will be different. I urge you to go and find out, as the way her art engages each person is quite an individual sensation.
Much of Kusama’s art has an almost hallucinatory intensity that reflects her unique vision of the world, whether through a teeming accumulation of detail or the dense patterns of nets and polka dots that have become her signature. She is renowned for her ‘environments’, large-scale installations of dazzling power that immerse the viewer.
The exhibition begins with her early paintings from the aftermath of the war, when Kusama began moving from the distinctly Japanese style of Nihonga painting to a more avant-garde aesthetic inspired by surrealism. With a lack of materials to hand she improvised, using seed sacks from her parents business. Even at this point there were seed-like dots appearing in her artwork.
“the ghosts of the polka dots haunting my retinas”
The next room showcases some early works on paper, where her bold use of colour and leaning towards ‘optical illusion’ has surfaced. As I stare at one drawing of a brightly coloured, dotty-patterned sun glowing out from a black background, it appears to loom from the page. My eyes shift over to the next sun work which is a whiter circle of light, and I see the ghosts of the polka dots haunting my retinas from the previous piece, appearing to dance atop of this new drawing.
“white nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness”
The next room contains Kusama’s complusive ‘Infinity Net Paintings’, formed by drawing repetitive arcs in white paint on a dark canvas. The result is an overly white expanse with irregularly shaped dots peeping through. Up close it is the ‘net’ – not the dots – that I focus on. In one way, there is an immense calm and stillness about the canvases. The white is quite monumental and meditative. The incessant structures of the pattern and the brush-marks in the paint seem to be encasing a great energy but controlling it quietly.
As I stepped back from my position up close to the canvas, the white brush strokes dropped away and the dot’s themselves became the focus. Forming an obsessive network of patterns, this organic visual language evokes both the micro and macro, the cosmos and the cell structure. My eyes started joining the dots (literally) and physically feeling the movement between them; the energy and momentum as they traverse the canvas like a swarm.
Yayoi Kusama has called the paintings “white nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness”. like the Nets, Kusama’s collage works (below) also transform visually depending on your proximity. The large pieces are made up of airmail stickers and other every day ready made objects which she repeated ad infinitum, “until the recognisable verges on the abstract”.
“my eyes feeling a little like moths flitting from one point of light to another.”
A most fascinating room was called ‘I’m here, but Nothing’. Pictured below, you can see that it is a darkened domestic interior, covered in fluorescent sticker spots which glow in the dim UV light. You don’t see the room or even the surfaces, but just a network of floating points of light that shift and shimmer as you perambulate. As it is not possible to focus on the objects but only on these bright spots, I felt myself pushed into a hallucinatory experience – my eyes feeling a little like moths flitting from one point of light to another.
“drawn in by it’s beauty and awestruck by its seemingly endless scale”
The finale of the exhibition came with the mesmerising and spectacular ‘Infinity Mirrored Room’: A dark, mirrored space strewn with dangling strings of tiny lights, which appear to extend back into a never ending expanse. The lights slowly fade into different colours, creating a magical experience which is intended to allow the viewer to “suspend his/her sense of self and accompany Kusama on her ongoing journey of self-obliteration”. I spent a long time in this immersive field, (even though the gallery staff do try to keep you moving through), and it was captivating unlike anything I’ve ever perceived. I believe Kusama wants the viewer to enter the room and get lost in its wondourousness – drawn in by it’s beauty and awestruck by its seemingly endless scale – so I advise you to spend as long in here as you can.
An experience akin to being suspended in a beautiful cosmos gazing at infinite worlds, or like a tiny dot of fluoresecent plankton in an ocean of glowing microscopic life, it was the perfect end to the show.
There are further images below, and for more insight this is the Tate’s first look video – click to play:
Images courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian and Nicola Anthony
Nicola Anthony is an artist and art writer living & working in London. She seeks to discover things which make her mind crackle with creative thought. Catch @Nicola_Anthony on twitter, or her artist’s website