City Gallery

Virginia Were, ‘An Artist of the Mirrored World’, Art News, Spring 2009.

When City Gallery Wellington unveils its much-anticipated redevelopment project, on 27 September, visitors will be treated to a breathtaking exhibition by one of the world’s greatest living woman artists—8o-year-old Yayoi Kusama.

This seminal figure in contemporary art—whose career spans fifty years and includes painting, sculpture, installation, film and performance—first took the world by storm in 1960s New York with avant-garde artworks that literally took to the streets – she once staged a Happening when naked people danced outside the New York Stock Exchange—and her sculptures and ‘environments’ featuring household furniture and boats covered with stuffed fabric ‘phalluses’ all added up to a miraculous parallel universe created by an artist who has described herself as ‘the modern Alice in Wonderland’.

Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years comes to Wellington from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney where it has broken visitor attendance records, prompting one viewer to remark that it was ‘the most enchanting, exquisite, want-to-stay-lost space in Sydney’ (Daily Addict).

Scheduling Kusama as the Gallery’s re-opening exhibition is a coup for City Gallery director, Paula Savage, who has been negotiating with Kusama Studio in Tokyo since 2004 to show her work in Wellington. Originating from the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, the core of the exhibition travelled to the MCA in Sydney and finally to Wellington. New Kusama works were added to the exhibition for Australasia by Paula Savage and Judith Blackall, MCA. These include the first paintings by Kusama from a very young age. In Wellington, a new installation, Dots Obsession Day and Dots Obsession Night (2008), has been fabricated by Kusama Studio specially for City Gallery. As well, Yayoi Kusama has created a new, site specific exterior installation which will engage with the architecture of the Gallery building. In this way the Kusama exhibition has been unique in each of the three venues.

Mirrored Years is ideal for the opening show for us of any artist I know, Kusama’s work has universal public appeal—across generations—from small children to elderly people—they all adore it. The work is consistently original, utterly unlike anything you will experience, and seems to appeal equally to both a specialist art audience and a non-art audience’, says Savage. ‘Kusama’s videos have been shown before in New Zealand, but not her other work. As with much international art many people in New Zealand—apart from those in the art world—are unfamiliar with the work Kusama, but we are confident the whole country will know about her once the exhibition opens.’

Savage says the exhibition has provided her with some sleepless nights. The delay in the start of Gallery construction meant the Gallery had to renegotiate loans and store the work in Sydney for a number of months. As well there was no contingency for new Kusama opening deadlines—rain delays in construction caused her a lot of anxiety but construction is back on schedule to open on time. In addition Mirrored Years is the most technically demanding installation the Gallery has ever faced—she faced issues of obtaining building consent for Kusama’s installation works which is quite a process in itself.

When Savage visited Tokyo in 2004, to see the exhibition Kusamatrix at the Mori Art Museum, she was bowled over by Kusama’s experiential mirrored installations, specially one in which the mirrored walls and floors reflected the led lights into seeming infinity, giving you the extraordinary sensation you were actually floating in the heavens. However since then she has come to particularly love the exquisite Infinity Net paintings, one of which is in the Wellington exhibition. These shimmering, optical canvases are built up from the repetition of tiny, monochromatic marks, which cover the surface of the canvas like a web or net. The series began in 1959 in New York when Kusama showed a series of huge canvases, each covered with tiny, white, net-like patterns repeated over a black ground. This marked the beginning of a new series that continues through to 2000 when she painted one Infinity Net painting across eight panels over ten metres long.

These paintings differed greatly from other large paintings emerging from the New York School in the 1960s; to fill a huge canvas with such small strokes, as Kusama did, would have been an extraordinary act because the large canvases customarily required equally expansive gestures—bold and sweeping strokes were indispensable.

Though critics have aligned these works with the newly emerging minimalist, pop and abstract expressionist artists of the 1960s, and discussed them in terms of Warhol’s notions of machine-like reproduction and repetition, it’s clear in hindsight that Kusama was following her own idiosyncratic agenda. Her all-consuming urge towards accumulation and repetition—often in the form of dots that colonise every surface like a virus—lacked the cool, fairly uniform and mechanical qualities that many of her contemporaries were exploring.

She has repeatedly stated she was not concerned with surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art or minimalism, but only with escaping her mental suffering. And in a recent article about the artist in the Guardian, Germaine Greer wrote most perceptively: ‘Kusama’s practice is beyond theory.’

Many viewers would say Kusama sees the world differently … and this is literally the case. She has suffered hallucinations (both visual and aural) and nameless dreads all her life. For her the driven, daily practice of her art has served a psychotherapeutic purpose—as a means for her to objectify the way she sees the world and to escape her mental suffering.

Her unique vision of the world comes into sharp focus when you read this quote from Infinity Nets: Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama (2002). ‘One day, after looking at the tablecloth with a pattern of red flowers, I turned my eyes to the ceiling and saw the same red flowers all over it and also on the windows and on the posts on the walls. The entire room, my entire body, the whole universe was buried in the forms of red flowers, and eventually I disappeared. Then I returned, came back from the infinity of eternal time and absolute space. This was not a hallucination but reality. I was amazed to the depths of my heart.’

Born in Matsumoto into a well-to-do traditionalist Japanese family, Kusama showed signs of mental disturbance early on and was misunderstood by her family. The fact she had the determination to overcome their resistance toward her becoming an artist, move to New York when she was 27, and then take the New York art world by storm is nothing short of a miracle.

Nature has always featured large in her work and her references to organic plant-like forms and patterns in works like the gorgeously optical yellow and black work, The Earth in Late Summer (2004, were perhaps inspired by her experience growing up as the daughter of a nurseryman. Darker more fetishistic forms arise and multiply in some of her sculptures and installations—the proliferation of multiple stuffed protuberances, which cover household furniture and boats, and the macaroni shells which are scattered all over the floor and stuck to readymade objects in some of her environments.

A highlight in the Wellington exhibition will be the inclusion of two Infinity Rooms, including the dazzling Fireflies on the Water, a mirrored room in which a magical ‘forest’ of suspended lights are infinitely reflected. Also featured will be the work Narcissus Garden, 1500 plastic mirror balls, which Kusama installed unofficially as part of the Venice Biennale in 1966. The authorities stopped the event because they objected to her selling balls on the biennale’s grounds. She exhibited officially at the Venice Biennale later in her career.

After living in New York for about seventeen years, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, and since then her work has been in constant demand, appearing in exhibitions at major art museums all over the world. Now, at last, New Zealanders will have the chance to immerse themselves in her dazzling compelling universe.

Tom Cardy, ‘On the Dot’, Dominion Post, 23 September 2009.

In the late 1950s abstract expressionist art was at its peak, with the likes of Willem de Kooning all the rage in New York.

Into an art scene dominated by white men stepped 27-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Within a few years she was one of the best-known artists in the city, garnering as much publicity as another young upstart called Andy Warhol.

Kusama mixed optical art, pop art and different mediums, from painting to sculpture and installations, much of it surreal and hallucinatory, including what would become her trademark—dots. She also injected her art into political protests and the very 1960s counter-culture practice of ‘happenings’, often involving nudity.

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan, where she continues to work as a prolific artist. Despite turning 80 this year, she spends most of her day creating art. She even has a studio a few minutes’ walk from a hospital where she regularly goes for medical treatment.

In the art world Kusama is a very big name. Last year, one of her early works sold at auction for more than US$5 million (NZ$7m)—making it the most expensive work sold at auction by a living female artist.

In Japan, she’s lauded, especially by the young, and a big influence on other artists, including Yoko Ono. This year Japan’s second largest telecommunications company, KDDI, hired Kusama to design three new mobile phones. They range in price from US$1,000 to US$10,000.

But for an artist from the pop art era, Kusama doesn’t have the same instant name recognition in New Zealand as Warhol.

Expect that to change when the revamped City Gallery in Wellington opens on Sunday.

Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years is the centrepiece of new exhibitions in the expanded gallery. It is the first time Kusama has exhibited in New Zealand and it will include two new site-specific works—which are likely to cause ripples of excitement through the international art scene.

The exhibition broke attendance records at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this year.

City Gallery director Paula Savage, who first met Kusama five years ago and began working to bring her here, has her own theory on why the octogenarian is hot.

‘Kusama was ahead of her time. She was an innovator and the work that she was doing has huge appeal to younger artists now. She’s influenced a lot of artists and a lot of artists reference her work. She has had a huge influence on contemporary art.’

Savage also believes Kusama’s work is likely to appeal to a broad audience, including gallery-shy Kiwis. A preview of some of the works and installations backs that up.

It includes the giant installations Dots Obsession–Day, 2009 and Dots Obsession–Night, (2009) on the gallery’s first floor. Visitors enter through a specially built corridor where the walls are festooned with giant convex mirrors, which is actually a separate work, Invisible Life (2009).

They then have the choice of visiting two large spaces: in each they are dwarfed by gigantic inflatable shapes, like a new kind of cephalopod, covered, along with the floor, walls and ceiling, with Kusama’s giant dots. The impact is immediate. Adults will be breathless and get an inkling of how children feel when they first see a bouncy castle. But the work presses many buttons. It’s accessible and fun, disorientating and a touch disturbing, all at the same time. The result is powerful.

It’s the same whether its paintings, including her monochrome Infinity Nets series, or, what is likely to be one of the most popular works, the installation Fireflies on the Water, where the viewer is surrounded by mirrors and 160 tiny coloured lights.

Kusama’s obsession with recurring patterns and repetition in her work is in part from hallucinations and ‘obsessive thoughts’ she’s had since she was a child.

She returned to Japan after having a nervous breakdown and has been voluntarily getting treatment for mental illness since. It’s meant that much of her work is autobiographical.

‘I have been plagued by visual and auditory hallucinations since childhood. I have translated them into my art works whilst seeking the truth about life,’ she says from Japan.

‘I have continued to incorporate never-ending dots and nets in my creations as a way to show the power of diverse artistic expressions. That is, I have worked out my illness as the evolution of my life force. I have created ‘pyschosomatic’ art and other numerous workings as an expression of my inner feelings.’

Kusama says her days in New York were to build ‘my own view of life as a seeker after the truth.’

There were few artists at the time creating monochrome art, but she says her work was never rejected by art dealers of galleries as being too outlandish.

She was close friends with artists Georgia O’Keefe, Joseph Cornell and others. ‘I found the association with them very heartwarming and enjoyable.’

Her work ethic hasn’t changed and she works in many mediums.

‘Since childhood, I have been creating artworks almost every day.’

‘When I was in New York, I was often carried into a hospital by ambulance after collapsing in exhaustion for having [been] totally absorbed in working on pieces for three days in a row without taking a break.

‘The hardest part in the process of creating new works is to mentally maintain my creative attitude and ideas while shutting out outside noises. Throughout my artistic career I have concentrated on making works with all my strength.’

Despite elements of fun and humour that come through in some of her work, Kusama says she’s been largely unaware of it.

‘Throughout my life, art has been everything for me … I believe my ideas have always been in the vanguard and contributed to changing art history. In other words, I have always stayed on the cutting edge of art.’

And while Kusama, for health reasons won’t be in Wellington for her show, she is rapt about New Zealand exhibiting her art.

‘It is my sincere wish that many people in New Zealand will view my works. I would like to open a new page of history [and] head into a new era—singing a praise for art in a louder voice.’

Jill Trevelyan, ‘Joining the Dots’, Listener, 26 September 2009.

In 1968, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama staged a ‘happening’ in Central Park in Manhattan. Nude dancers shimmied to the sound of bongo drums while she painted her trademark polka dots on their bodies. Police closed it down, but not before she issued a statement to the press: ‘Like Alice, who went through the looking glass, I, Kusama … have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom … You, too, can join my adventurous dance of life.’

Kusama’s invitation to enter her fantasy world will soon be extended to New Zealanders. After a year-long building development project, City Gallery Wellington is about to reopen with Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years, a stunning exhibition that includes the artist’s dizzying polka dot installations and mirrored rooms.

Now 80, Kusama is a legendary figure in Japan and a star in international art circles. Nude body painting is no longer part of her repertoire, but her art remains as eccentric as ever: playful and euphoric, yet also strange and unsettling. Concerned with the nature of perception and sensory experience, she makes no distinction between canvas, object and architectural space. It’s all potentially a surface to be covered with her signature patterns: polka dots, painted ‘nets’, phallic-shaped protuberances, and even dried macaroni and airmail stickers.

Interviewed by email, the artist is elusive, slipping deftly from specific questions to general statements about her work and motivations. Perhaps too much is lost in translation; perhaps she is simply weary of being quizzed. Nevertheless, her answers offer a clear message about her dedication and ambition, and her idealistic personal philosophy. According to Kusama, her trademark patterns have cosmic significance: ‘My polka dots … envelop the whole universe with a message: ‘Love Forever’.’

Her work has often been linked to avant-garde movements, and much of it foreshadows later developments in body art, feminist art and post-object art. But she brushes off such talk. ‘I am not concerned with surrealism, pop art, minimal art, or whatever’, she has stated. ‘I am so absorbed in living my life.’ For Kusama, living her life means dealing with mental illness, and she sees her art as personal therapy. ‘Although I have been plagued by an illness … which has required me to see psychiatrists, I have translated it into artworks in order to overcome it in an effort to search for a new life,’ she says.

Born in Japan in 1929 to a well-to-do family, Kusama began to experience alarming visions as a child. In a 1995 autobiographical essay, she recalled a pattern on a red tablecloth that began to colour everything: ‘When I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.’

To calm her fears, Kusama began to record the visions that threatened to overwhelm her. The earliest work in the City Gallery exhibition, made when she was just 10 years old, shows a woman wearing a kimono, her eyes closed as if in resignation. A veil of dots covers the entire surface of the drawing, anticipating the polka dots that later came to dominate her art.

By her teens, Kusama was determined to become an artist, but her parents tried to discourage her: ‘They were always trying to rope me into arranged marriage with men I’d never met,’ she told an interviewer in 1997. Largely self-taught, she held her first exhibition in 1952 and began to win support from influential figures in the Japanese art world. Three years later, her work was included in an exhibition of watercolours at the Brooklyn Museum, and from that point she set her sights on New York.

Kusama was 27 when she arrived in New York in 1958, with minimal English and few contacts. But she was talented and charismatic, with a fierce determination to succeed, and she also had an ability to assimilate and respond to current art trends.

After 18 months, Kusama exhibited the wall-sized paintings she called her Infinity Nets—subtle, interlocking patterns of white comma-like shapes on a white ground. The critics were impressed: the future minimalist Donald Judd, who was then working mainly as a writer, wrote a glowing review and bought a painting.

During this period, Kusama met the artist Joseph Cornell, who became her lover. ‘It was an ideal relationship for me,’ she commented many years later. ‘I disliked sex and he was impotent, so we suited each other very well.’ In 1962, she began a new series inspired by her fear of sex, covering furniture, kitchen utensils and even a rowboat with stuffed phallic shapes. ‘By making phalluses over and over, I conquered the fear,’ she noted. ‘I called this ‘psychosomatic art’.’

In the mid-1960s Kusama began to produce mirrored rooms in which polka-dotted objects and flashing lights were reflected to infinity: soon, she turned to performance, tapping into the anti-war and flower-power movements of the times. Painting polka dots on horses, staging a satire against Richard Nixon or officiating at a gay wedding—she often made front-page news with her antics.

Although her years in New York were a period of intense creativity, Kusama was often ill, alternating spurts of obsessive work with periods of unproductivity. And poverty sapped her energy. In 1973, mental and physical problems drove her back to Japan; four years later, she moved into the Seiwa Hospital, a private psychiatric clinic, as a voluntary resident. She has lived there ever since.

Kusama’s career suffered a setback with her return home, and it was not until the 1980s that she was ‘rediscovered’ by the Japanese art world. Since then, she has maintained an extraordinary level of productivity. The Seiwa Hospital evidently provides the ideal conditions for her work: she has produced hundreds of paintings, sculptures and installations as a resident there, as well as 13 books of fiction and poetry. Asked about the future, she declares: ‘I will walk straight down the endless road with a wish for the further development of my art.’

For Paula Savage, director of City Gallery Wellington, this exhibition has been years in the realisation. In 2004, she made a special trip to Tokyo to view the Mori Museum exhibition Kusa-matrix, and was ‘overwhelmed’ by its mirrored environments: ‘I had a strangely euphoric but disorientating experience of floating in space and I had to extend my arms out straight to keep my balance. Kusama has an extraordinary and unique artistic imagination—you experience her art with all your senses.’

Savage finds it especially satisfying to relaunch City Gallery with Kusama’s work. ‘We wanted to reopen with a memorable exhibition that would have huge appeal and enthusiastic support from a wide range of visitors … This is an exhibition that will transform our gallery spaces, expanding our visitors’ experience and understanding of contemporary visual art. Kusama herself has said she wants to make contemporary art ‘as accessible to all as the products in a supermarket’.’

Mirrored Years comes to Wellington after attracting record audiences at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum Boijmands van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Featuring paintings, prints, sculpture, installations, and film, it has been tailored to each institution, and Savage is excited about the inclusion of early drawings from 1939 and two installations designed in 2008 and fabricated in new versions especially for Wellington: Dots Obsession- Night and Dots Obsession- Day. Kusama has also designed a new site-specific public artwork for the facade of the City Gallery.

A key work in Mirrored Years is Narcissus Garden, a collection of 1500 mirrored balls that Kusama originally installed, uninvited, at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Clad in a gold kimono, she cavorted amid the balls, handing out press statements about her work. The authorities closed it down when she began to sell the balls for 1200 lire: it was not permissible, she was told, ‘to sell art like hot dogs or ice cream cones at the Venice Biennale.’

Two of Kusama’s celebrated Infinity Mirrored Rooms promise to be a highlight for visitors in Wellington. In Fireflies on the Water, hundreds of twinkling coloured lights are reflected in a pool of dark water, creating a magical all-enveloping landscape. The firefly is an important symbol in Japanese culture, associated with passionate love, and also with death, as its lights are believed to be the souls of soldiers who have lost their lives in war. Kusama’s poignant installation conjures the sensation of floating free in space in a timeless world, simultaneously connected to other creatures yet perfectly alone. It recalls a typically Kusama-esque remark of 1968: ‘Our earth is like a little polka dot among millions of other celestial bodies.’

David Cross, ‘David Cross Visits the Yayoi Kusama Show’EyeContact, 5 October 2009. 

Wellington artist Bec Coogan once told me she had Yayoi Kusama’s name tattooed on her body. While unable then (and still) to vouch for the veracity of this, Coogan’s demonstrably clear Kusama obsession led me to believe it was likely she was not just winding me up. Kusama, whose ambitious survey show has opened at Wellington City Gallery, is clearly a cult figure for many artists who are drawn to her distinctive language of dots, inflatables and mirrored forms employed across a stunning variety of media. Massively libidinal and at the same time strangely asexual, Kusama is an artist whose practice has interrogated the psychic and sensory possibilities inherent in repetitive forms and motifs. Yet for every space of child-like pleasure she has created, there is a disturbing edge, a sense of obsessive excess born of a desperate compulsion. A Hansel and Gretel-like quality is ever-present in Kusama’s work, which has ensured that underneath the candy colours there has always been a brooding disquiet keeping the frivolity in check.

The City Gallery show brings together a range of work from all periods with a particular focus on recent work since 2000. It does not have the sweep of a retrospective but develops particular threads across different bodies of work. There are a few choice mirror installations together with the dot rooms, and a number of films from her libertine Happenings in the 1960s, where, following Carolee Schneemann, her performers recreate action painting as sexually lived experience. These ‘seminal’ pieces are especially compelling and it is impressive to see them recreated in a broader context of related work.

Mirrored Years is a particularly taxing show on the gallery guards. It’s not just the legion of kids wanting to put the slipper into each biomorphic inflatable they come across, but nearly every adult I observed could not resist prodding the objects: searching for concrete evidence that the visual cacophony is more than a trompe l’oeil. The resultant tension of haptic denial in works such as Dots Obsession Day/Night (2009) ratchets up an already peculiar ambience so that pleasure is kept at a sanitised distance. In many of the works Kusama perversely builds spaces that envelop the senses, suggesting the possibility of complete immersion without allowing such an immersion to ever be sufficiently consummated through touch. This division has clearly become more pronounced in the later work. Earlier happenings captured on film such as Self-Obliteration (1968) highlight an interest in drawing performers and audiences into a total work of art, erasing the boundaries between body, object and space. Yet such an imperative gradually leeches out of the work to be replaced by a lexicon of repetitive shapes, objects and spaces that while visually discordant, are highly controlled and controlling.

Certainly the earlier installations feel more engaging and less programmatic. Infinity Mirror Room originally made in 1965, is a classic piece capturing that 60s alignment of phenomenology, minimalist reflective surfaces and proto-psychedelic mind games. Even in our world of ever-increasing spatial simulation, the antiquated devices of light and mirrors transport the viewer to a weirdly compelling space. Only the 45-second time limit and the incursion of the soundtrack from a video next door limit the experience.

When Kusama’s work takes on more mundane dimensions such as in the installation I’m Here, but Nothing (2000), a recreated 50s Japanese lounge room with fluroresecent light and dots, the results are disappointing. The work is buried in a literalism that is heavy-handed and visually underwhelming. Similarly problematic is Walking On the Sea of Death (1981) an installation which employs the artist’s famous soft sculpture boat made up of phalluses and bundles of grapes. Instead of locating the work in a closed off/immersive space, the boat is marooned in a half annexed open space that feels too contingent and literally open to connote anything of real significance.

Perhaps this is the rub with Kusama. The work functions best when it is both immersive and seperated from its surroundings and literal connections to the ‘real’ world: when it is configured as a world unto itself. Her unfortunate tree dots outside the Hayward Gallery in winter this year are a salient reminder of the pitfalls of overextending a vocabulary.

Mirrored Years, while being too focused on the weaker late works of the artist, covers a lot of valuable ground. Its strength as an exhibition lies in the way it locates Kusama as a great trans-disciplinary artist whose breadth of practice is perhaps only matched by Nauman, Beuys and Warhol. Working at the forefront of so many disciplines, especially installation, Kusama is an artist whose appeal to other artists transcends any one generation. Having said this, the long queues at City Gallery in the first week suggest her greatest success is in successfully bridging the notorious chasm between critical acclaim and popular appeal.