Yayoi Kusama @ Tate Modern

Tate Modern hosts the first major British retrospective work of 83 year old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Her six-decade work currently on show comprises of paintings, sculptures, installations and an extensive volume of archive material related to the artist’s activity and career since the 1940’s.

Kusama’s early works are a mix of traditional Japanese style paintings with Western influences, which emerged through gathered material from art books and European and American magazines. Her growing interest in the work of US artist Georgia O’Keeffe coincided with her move to New York in 1958. There she produces paintings with surfaces in abstract grid-like monochromatic patterns on contrasting backgrounds known as ‘Infinity Nets’, in line with the minimal and conceptual art of the time. Her first sculptures include the ‘Accumulation sculptures’ or the ‘Sex Obsession’ series (first exhibited in 1962 in a group show with Andy Warhol, George Segal and others) incorporating everyday items covered with phallic objects made of stuffed fabric.

In the 1960’s Kusama begins the creation of collages, photo collages and montages sometimes integrating her own image. The ‘Walking Piece’ (1966) is a series of slides showing Kusama walking around the streets of an anonymous and alienated industrial landscape such as that of New York in a pink ceremonial kimono and an umbrella. Meanwhile, the outbreak of the hippie and psychedelia subcultures from the mid-1960’s had a deep impact on Kusama’s work, which involved numerous experimental performances and happenings including the provocative Body Festivals and orgy parties. There, all participants performed the painting of polka dots on each other’s bodies. The film ‘Self-Obliteration’ is a great footage of Kusama’s activities and installations from this period.

Upon returning to Japan in 1973 and having suffered from nervous disorders and hallucinations since childhood, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a Tokyo psychiatric hospital which still remains her home for the past 38 years. She based her studio opposite the hospital facilities and she very soon expanded her activities, from collage production to art dealing and writing her own novels and a poetry collection. Simultaneously, she starts creating larger scale sculptures and installations adopting biomorphic and –revisiting territories of the past- phallic shapes. Alongside with her sculptural work, Kusama returns to painting using acrylic as her main medium. Her 1980’s and 1990’s paintings are made with strong vivid colours combined with an abstract mannerism suggesting microscopic life forms and astronomical imagery. During the late 1990’s Kusama returns to her room-sized installations. Her ‘I’m Here, but Nothing’ is a large furnished room with all surfaces covered with florescent dot stickers that glow under the room’s UV lights. The viewer is encouraged to interact by placing a sticker anywhere in the room thus taking part in the creation of this surreal habitat.

Another section shows a sample of Kusama’s latest paintings (between 2009 and 2011) which could also be seen in conjunction with a parallel exhibition of her latest works (featuring 23 paintings and 4 sculptures) showcased at Victoria Miro Gallery (ended 5 April). In these acrylic on canvas paintings Kusama revisits her favourite dotted patterns along with other imagery such as eyes, flowers, faces, and microscopic life forms.

Kusama’s immense interest in the element of infinity is greatly emphasised on her ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ that she began to produce back in the mid 60’s. The final taste of Kusama’s work at Tate is the large walk-in chamber ‘Infinity Mirrored Room-Filled with the Brilliance of Life’, specifically created for this exhibition. This mirrored installation with hundreds of suspended changing colour LED lights allow us to experience Kusama’s disorientating journey into the infinite.

Kusama’s contribution to the modern and contemporary art in the international art scene is closely related with the fast paced evolution of the arts during the second half of the 20th century. Through the exploration of her own version of abstract expressionism and surrealism she pioneeringly managed to build a unitary bridge connecting renowned styles with the emerging minimalism and pop art. Not only that, but she also succeeded in creating her personal signature with her recognisable visual language part of which is represented by her polka dots reminiscent of her own life, “a single particle among billions”, as she states in her autobiography.

Although the Tate blockbuster retrospective tends to reflect the massively productive –almost obsessive- artistic flair of Kusama filtered with her continuous mental instability since her early career, we are alas left with an indifferent aftertaste dominated by colour explosion and playfulness without emphasising enough on the evolving artist, the development and the maturity of her talent and her influence on numerous artists of her time. Kusama’s journey unquestionably involves a process of self-discovery and self-negotiation through the ubiquitous challenge of sexuality and the fragility of her mental state. Her provocative work, especially up to the 1970’s, is a terminus post quem demonstrating her obsession to not only establish herself as an artist but also her very own image in a profoundly narcissistic manner.

Her everlasting talent as well as the charisma and the ability to re-invent herself for more than half a century demonstrates a great need for expression; this is almost like a self healing process deriving from an omnipresent esoteric dialogue. Her sometimes juvenile mannerism becomes a stimulating balancing act with her optical intricacy that stems from her work, especially her room sized mirror installations. The large scale of these works stands as an open invitation to explore her hallucinatory world and participate in a noetic journey towards the abyss of her intellect.