London is filled with tourists in August and September. Museums, galleries and cafés are filled with their chatter. Outside the Tate Modern, on the banks of the Thames, locals and tourists are lining up to see Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition.
The response to her Infinity Mirrored Rooms has been so overwhelming that the museum recently extended the exhibition, which opened in June 2021, by a year. It will now run until June 2023.
Kusama’s work is easy to enjoy because it is accessible and free from the afflictions of elite art. Even if you aren’t a fan of contemporary art, you are likely to be familiar with the diminutive Japanese artist’s signature polka dots and pumpkins, the leitmotif of most of her paintings, sculptures, performances and installations. The dots have followed Kusama from the time she was a little girl and began experiencing hallucinations. Today, at 93, the artist lives in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, her home for 45 years, and says the treatment and care at the facility have helped her to focus exclusively on her art.
Inside the first Infinity Room at the Tate, a hallucination is recreated through a single chandelier and endless mirrors to produce a sensorial wonderland. In Chandelier Of Grief, an ornate chandelier rotates from the ceiling, creating a limitless field of light from the infinite mirrors surrounding it, telling you that you can experience beauty and sadness at the same time. Kusama’s mind may be a troubled place but what she has created is truly beautiful and bedazzling.
As you wait for your turn to lose yourself in the Infinity Rooms, you get an insight into the artist’s extraordinary journey through a documentary film and photographs. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, to a wealthy family of merchants, she gained prominence in the 1960s in New York, US. But she grew up in a deeply unhappy family. Her father was an incurable womaniser and her mother would often make young Kusama spy on him. As a child, she was exposed not only to inappropriate behaviour but also became the target of her mother’s rage. To escape the trauma, she took refuge in art. That further infuriated her mother, who destroyed her drawings and art material.
Sitting in a field of violets and drawing as a child, she saw the heads of flowers turn into dots that stretched as far as she could see. They began crowding in on her, suffocating her, speaking to her, states the curatorial note. Little Kusama felt she was disappearing, or “self-obliterating” as she describes it, into this limitless field of dots. This was the beginning of her obsession with dots, an attempt to make sense of her hallucinatory experiences through art.
When she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe, the American artist invited her to the US, warning her that artists had a hard time making a living. Kusama reached the US in 1958, with a few kimonos and a small sum of money. A few years later, the Infinity Nets series she had started the year she arrived in the US got her the break she needed. It consisted of 30ft-wide canvases with pastel paints that revealed a net of polka dots, painted painstakingly over months.
There were also her unusual sculptures—boats, chairs, stairs and other objects made of stuffed, disturbingly lifelike phalluses she patiently sewed with fabric. Having to spy on her father’s affairs had exposed her to, and inspired a hatred of, the male anatomy. When she first exhibited this work in New York in the 1960s, critics were shocked by the sexualised transformation of ordinary domestic objects by a female artist.
Being a woman and an Asian meant Kusama was quickly written off. Her ideas were appropriated by male artists like Andy Warhol, who copied her repetitive style for his wallpaper prints, and Claes Oldenburg, who used her concept of soft sculptures, gaining far more acclaim than her. This betrayal led Kusama to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. She eventually moved back to Japan, where her hallucinations and panic attacks returned in full force. In March 1977, she entered a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, continuing to work from there.
At the Tate Modern, as you move into the second Infinity Room, you cross a reflective walkway over a shallow pool. Tiny dots of light are repeated endlessly in mirrors and water, suddenly making you a dot among bright dots, a star among a million others in the Milky Way. “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos…. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment,” she has said of her work.
Over the last decade, the Instagrammable nature of Kusama’s work has given it the reach it deserves. Her work shares elements of eccentric abstraction, surrealism, minimalism and pop art, defying classification. “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago,” Kusama has said. What a loss that would have been.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is the author of Love In The Time Of Affluenza and Battle Hymn Of A Bewildered Mother. She writes on popular culture, art, family life and travel.
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