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Why Yayoi Kusama is a ‘pure artist’

Spots, infinity rooms and pumpkins – they’re the trademarks of a Yayoi Kusama exhibition. The red-haired Japanese artist is loved the world over for her eccentricity, and her cult following stretches from the shores of Brazil to the icy climes of Scandinavia. In a celebration of the artist’s prolific career, GOMA’s new exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow presents a retrospective of work that takes you inside a colourful world of mirrors, spots and intricate paintings.

As you are peering into a mirrored universe or obliterating a room with stickers, Kusama will most likely be painting at her studio in Japan. Working 12-hour days for most days of the year, she is utterly bound to her craft.

When trying to explain Kusama’s motivation for continuing to produce work well into her eighties, Reuben Keehan, Curator, Contemporary Asian Art at GOMA, says she is best described as a ‘pure artist’. Having curated this retrospective in collaboration with National Gallery Singapore, Keehan shares why Kusama’s work resonates all around the world, and what to expect when you visit the exhibition.

Why did you decide to present a retrospective of Kusama’s work?

The last time we worked with Kusama back in 2011 we showed only new work, and that show was really a way of profiling where her practice was in all its facets at that particular point in time. There were quite a few bodies of work that have been quite important to the development that weren’t represented.

I think there are some real surprises within the show that will really flesh out people’s understanding of the artist’s practice.

What is it about Kusama that has led to her worldwide popularity?

It’s really interesting and there are a number of factors, but we really can’t discount the amenability of her work to social media. That has been a wide part of the circulation of her work, but I think the fact that she is who she is, is a little bit unusual for thinking about who such a popular artist would be. The fact that she is an older woman well into her eighties living in Japan is a little unusual for the heroic white male image we see and promoted as the archetypal artist.

She also moved around so much in her earlier life – she started out as a practicing artist in Japan, moved to the United States and showed there and in Europe quite a lot for about 15 years, and then returned to Japan and set about re-establishing herself again. This means she has that cross-cultural experience and thinks cross-culturally in terms of the materials and the images and motifs she uses, which makes her a very interesting artist within the context of globalisation.

It is interesting to see where she is popular and where the big exhibition numbers are coming from. They are coming from everywhere – and that’s the point. They are coming from Brazil, they are coming from Korea, they are coming from exhibitions in Scandinavia, so her work is circulating quite widely.

It’s not just that she is a popular artist in the Western mode – she is a popular artist of global art. She is not just some new hot young thing or some next big thing, she is someone who has seven decades of practice behind her and people can see the richness of that. Of course you see the more spectacular works circulating on social media, but the fact is that once people get to the shows they see there is a huge amount of work and thinking that has gone into making those works.

What is the significance of the recurring motifs in her work?

There are three themes to this exhibition and one of them is the key motifs. You start to see very early on in her practice the use of dots, which becomes a bit more prevalent in the 1960s and that relates quite strongly to the infinity net paintings.

The nets were really the backbone of her practice and the dots, even though she was using them early in her practice, really become quite prominent when she starts to think about the negative space of the net paintings, so the space between the nets, which resembles dots.

Then when she went back to Japan, she became very interested in the organic and biomorphic forms, bodily shapes, shapes that we might consider to be a little bit abject, a little bit grotesque. And out of that she became quite fond of pumpkins, partly because pumpkins have a sense of individuality to them – they don’t really care what anybody thinks of them in a way, and I think she could identify with that to some degree. So they are kind of fantastically ugly and they always look like they are about to explode and they had a great deal of appeal.

So those three things – the dots, the nets and the pumpkins – are a trajectory we have tracked through her practice with this exhibition.

She’s still a productive artist and the exhibition features her most recent paintings from the My Eternal Soul series. What can we expect from these paintings?

This was a series she established in 2009 to really try out a new mode of painting. She challenged herself to make 100 of these images. She kept at it and has decided not to cap it anymore, because she enjoys it so much.

Basically, they are very, very colourful works, usually with a single, flat, very bright colour laid down as the base and then sometimes one or a number of different colours are used over the top of that. She uses a number of different motifs – eyes, images of these strange alien figures, faces and profiles of abstract things. You see them repeated across the canvasses again and again, which she paints quite intuitively.

Showing them all together, we see the play of imagery and form across the surfaces of the painting, as well as this really extraordinary statement about colour and the way that the eye responds to it. They are very absorbing.

How does her work link in with her mindset?

She has been known as someone who has always been committed to making art. She has spoken about making work when she was ten years old and it is quite a compulsive thing for her. She paints every day roughly for about 12 hours (and that includes weekends as well), so she has no time off and she can actually get quite anxious when she is away from the studio and away from painting.

Painting really is the most important aspect of her practice for her. So while the larger environments have been the things that she is perhaps more recognisable for, the painting is really the backbone of her practice.

Kusama uses words like obsession, for example, but another Japanese artist I was speaking to recently described her as a ‘pure artist’, as someone who is utterly dedicated to making art, and I think that is a really good way of describing her mindset.

What is your insider tip for visitors to the exhibition?

Do spend some time with some of the smaller works in the show. There is a really gorgeous 1958 net painting called The Sea. It’s tiny and it’s much smaller than the scale that Kusama works at, but I think it’s quite a key painting in the exhibition in that it gives a really good sense of this particular vision of space that she is trying to articulate very early on and ends up realising in full later.

And get there early, because Kusama is known for attracting crowds.

KEY DETAILS  

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow
4 November 2017 to 11 February 2108
Gallery of Modern Art
View exhibition program

Image: Yayoi Kusamain front of Peace Shall Come as Far as the Ends of the Universe (2017) ©YAYOI KUSAMA, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro, London, David Zwirner, New York.

 


 

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