Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow

December 15, 2017
Yayoi Kusama in front of her painting 'Life is the Heart of a Rainbow'

Yayoi Kusama has been the most hyperproductive of artists, but old age seems to have inspired even more prodigious feats. At 88-years-old her annual output of retrospectives, surveys, commercial exhibitions, public art projects and self-penned publications is mind-boggling. Most artists would feel pleased if they achieved as much during an entire lifetime.

It helps, of course, to be mad – or at least mad enough to have lived in a Tokyo mental institution for the past 40 years. Every day Kusama leaves the asylum to take a short walk to her studio where she makes paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations. In the evening she returns to her room and writes fiction, poetry and memoirs.

A mere fraction of this relentless creativity is on display at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, in Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, an exhibition co-curated with the National Gallery of Singapore. A truly comprehensive overview of Kusama’s work is almost inconceivable, but the curators have tried to include pieces from all stages of her career, beginning with a series of murky little abstractions made in the 1950s while Kusama was still unhappily lodged with her parents in Matsumoto City. The most recent items are large, colourful paintings from a series titled My Eternal Soul, which she began in 2009, with a plan to make 100 pictures. There are now more than 500 – and counting.

This is not the first time we’ve seen a body of Kusama’s work in Australia. There was a show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009, and she has featured in many group exhibitions at GOMA and the Queensland Art Gallery. As it happens there is very little repetition between the Sydney and Brisbane surveys. In the years since the MCA show, Kusama has become even more of an drawcard, breaking attendance records around the world.

There is no entry charge for the GOMA show. The thinking is that vewers who have come to see Kusama will stay on and pay to see the other special exhibition, Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images (until 4 Feb.)

In art circles Richter is even more famous and successful than Kusama, but he has never enjoyed the same popular appeal. There is no big secret to Kusama’s popularity: she makes viewers feel happy. Aside from a vibrant sense of colour and pattern, Kusama’s works have an obsessive quality that tells us she is never giving less than one hundred percent.

Art-making has been a life-long compulsion and a way of escaping her mental disturbances. From a young age she would see auras, and hallucinate that a bed of violets or a dog had begun talking to her. When she left her repressive homeland and went to live in the United States in 1957, she had to grapple with both her illness and the difficulty of making her mark as a young, unknown Japanese woman in the world’s most competitive art scene.

Holed up in a shabby loft in New York she worked obessively on her Infinity Net paintings which featured a small curved brushstroke, as regular as a stitch, repeated across wall-sized canvases that might extend for more than 10 metres. She would work day and night, forgetting to eat, sometimes collapsing with exhaustion.

Yayoi Kusama, 'Venus de Milo Obliterated by Infinity Nets No.2' (1998)

Yayoi Kusama, ‘Venus de Milo Obliterated by Infinity Nets No.2’ (1998)

The Infinity Nets were all about dissolving the ego, or in the artist’s own words: “Dissolution and accumulation; propagation and separation; particulate obliteration and unseen reverberations from the universe – these were the foundations of my art.”

Kusama has continued to make Infinity Nets, but now they are only one of her many themes. The GOMA exhibition features a variety of these, from a ragged white monochrome from 1959, to a more tightly crafted white painting from 2016. In between there are works in different colours, fields of spermatozoa or the stamens of plants, and a full-sized cast of the Venus de Milo covered in black-and-yellow netting.

From all-over paintings Kusama would move into three dimensions, covering objects with phallic protuberances made from fabric. These Accumulations spread with the same viral forces as the nets, attaching themselves to suites of furniture and mannequins, filling entire rooms.

In the sixties...

In the sixties…

The massed phalli represented Kusama’s “fear of sex” and her belief that male sexuality was the driving force behind all violence and war. Instead of shrinking away from her phobia she embraced it in the most outlandish manner, orchestrating nude happenings and “orgies”, featuring a host of willing male and female collaborators. Although she claimed to have no sex of her own, she became a champion of the sexual revolution.

Kusama organised these nude happenings in many parts of the world until 1973, when she returned exhausted to Japan. In her homeland she wasn’t celebrated as “Queen of the Hippies”, but treated as an immoral, shameful woman. Viewed as a has-been in the west, and shunned in Japan, Kusama retreated to the asylum and began to rebuild her career.

A large part of the GOMA show is devoted to the work she has made since returning to worldwide prominence in 1993, with a solo show in the Japanese pavillion at the Venice Biennale. From that point, the slow revival of Kusama’s fortunes took on a volcanic force. Above all it was her installations featuring large-scale mirrored rooms that captured everyone’s imagination.

Infinity Mirrored Room - Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008)

Infinity Mirrored Room – Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008)

Although it wasn’t Kusama’s intention, her immersive environments allow viewers to take amazing selfies on their mobile phones. The Brisbane show is no different in this respect, with long queues in front of the mirror room. It’s ironic that works intended to represent the dissolution of the self have become the ultimate props to narcissism.

In the final room we encounter the paintings from the series, My Eternal Soul. With their bright colours, massed dots, and abstract, suggestive shapes, these works have surprising affinities with western desert painting. The picture that gives its name to the show, Life is the Heart of a Rainbow (2017), could easily pass for an Aboriginal painting were it not for the collection of tiny eyes Kusama has embedded in the design. A piece such as Entrance to Death (206), is closer still, but not even the wildest indigenous colourists would have used such vivid tones of green and red.

Subtle, atmospheric last room of the show

Subtle, atmospheric last room of the show

I don’t think Kusama is borrowing from the desert painters. It’s more illuminating to believe that artists in different parts of the world, from totally different cultures, can enjoy an equivalent relationship with the cosmos.

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,
until 11 February, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December, 2017