Yayoi Kusama, the 82 year-old Japanese artist, is one of modern art’s most curious figures. A large retrospective of her work opened at the Tate Modern, on 9th February, to a great reception. Spanning 14 rooms, the exhibition offers viewers an exhilarating journey Kusama’s career, which has seen much speculation about Kusama’s mental state. Her voluntary residency in a psychiatric ward is well documented, as are her claims of childhood out-of-body experiences. Predictably, the language of mental illness – “psychosis”, “psychopathic” and even “lunacy” – dominates reviews.
But viewers hardly need suspend their rational faculties to understand or even appreciate her work – unlike so much other ‘modern art’ Kuama’s paintings and sculptures are, almost bathetically, sane. Though the paranormal is an obvious theme – ominous eyes and irregular forms are recurrent symbols – her work is readily accessible as a sort of fun, surrealist pop-art.
The works are an assault on the senses. Her lurid colours and strange shapes play on the eyes; walking around the exhibition is an almost auditory experience – her paintings don’t speak they scream. Her penis sculptures, where squashed, swollen, stumpy phalli crop mushroom-like from a rowing boat, are playfully provocative. As a young girl forced to spy on her father’s sexual
encounters, Kusama developed a powerful aversion to sex. Creating thousands of phallic sacks by hand was, therefore, an act of confronting her fears on a huge scale.
The Infinity Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) – a space walled by mirrors and full of coloured lights, is a disorientating, psychedelic highlight. Kusama demands that her viewers “become one with eternity” and in the endless mirrorings of the Infinity Room, we come close. Perhaps most famous for her ‘dots,’ in Self-Obliteration No. 2 (1967), everything in the painting is rendered secondary to blobs of red paint. Dots of colour achieve the same effect in her 2000/2012 installation I’m Here, But Nothing. Dots become Kusama’s insignia and as a motif, they lend coherence to her work.
The success of Kusama’s work, and the undeniable appeal of the exhibition, is that it can be enjoyed purely on the level of the aesthetic. Informative details about her paranoia and neurosis simply add depth to this superficial charm.
Yayoi Kusama, February 9th – June 5th, Tate Modern