Presenting a career-spanning exhibition of the works of Yayoi Kusama is tricky. The Japanese artist has been prolific since the 1950s and creates work that’s consistently groundbreaking.
Kusama has influenced everything from pop art to minimalism to abstract expressionism. She’s used almost every medium, including painting, sculpture, installation, live performance and fashion design. Kusama’s art looks deeply at emotion and humanity, and is as varied as human experience itself.
With Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, Queensland’s GOMA presents the many sides of Yayoi Kusama. It features early paintings Kusama made in post-war Japan, plots her development in the American art scene as a contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol, then follows her transformation into an artist totally removed from outside influence who creates original work that has inspired movements all over the world. Walking through the exhibition you feel like you’re getting a sense of the whole artist, but it’s also concise enough not to overwhelm more casual patrons.
Before even entering the exhibition, a large sculpture of a colourful, almost cartoonish flower (Flowers That Bloom at Midnight) sits in pride of place in the foyer. Then, around the corner, Kusama’s large-scale installation Dots Obsession throws the viewer headlong into the art with huge black and yellow spotted balloons hanging from the ceiling inviting you to consider light and form, as well as fun.
While these two pieces represent well-known themes of Kusama’s work – bright colours, dots, a sense of joy and scale – some of the most interesting pieces on display are those that delve into the struggles with mental health that have plagued the artist since childhood. Pieces such as Death of a Nerve, a large sculpture of long soft ropes representing the nerves under the artist’s skin. Or her dark, moody early works: paintings layered in muted colours, sculptures of mutant, reaching shapes in grey.
Kusama has been a permanent resident of the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo since 1977 (though she leaves daily to work in her studio). As the explanations accompanying some pieces note, many of the shapes and figures in her work come from hallucinations that have been with her since childhood. This sort of information perhaps doesn’t have so much bearing on Kusama’s skill or relevance, but it helps with forming a more complete picture of the artist.
One of the perhaps lesser-known phases in Kusama’s early development was her time in New York when she staged “happenings”, live-art events with human bodies, which coincided with the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Life is the Heart of a Rainbow includes photos and video from the period. They show Kusama’s subjects often naked and covered in dots, sometimes wearing her fashion designs with their bold circular cut-outs revealing genitalia and other body parts. Kusama herself is in these photos and it’s a treat to see her as a young, spirited political artist.
Of course, Kusama’s more eye-catching works still shine – or strobe, spin and flash as is the case with I Want to Love On the Festival Night. This is a newer work, a mirrored box full of different coloured lights you stick your head into and become a part of. The exhibition also features the return of the ever-popular The Obliteration Room, a children’s exhibit developed by Kusama for the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial 2002 where visitors stick different coloured dots over a completely white room, creating and transforming the art themselves.
Throughout her career Kusama’s work has explored sexuality; war; the commodification of art; desire; youth; femininity and masculinity; and ambition. Even with the international acclaim that has come from the more accessible works of the past decade, this exhibition resists the common trope of presenting her as the cute, eccentric grandma of the art world. Instead it gives us a glimpse of the many sides of Yayoi Kusama’s genius.
Life is the Heart of a Rainbow runs until February 11 at GOMA. More information about talks, GOMA Up Late and live events can be found on the gallery’s website.