Inclusiveness, accessibility and play aren’t the kind of notions that readily come to mind when discussing the work of those at the forefront of conceptual art. Across the breadth of her five-decade career, however, Yayoi Kusama has long been the exception.
From her work on the front line of New York’s avant-garde in the 60s – including her naked ‘happenings’ in Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge – to her famed partiality to the polka-dot, the plant and the pumpkin (which she describes as “unpretentious vegetables”), the now 82-year-old Japanese artist’s longstanding painting, sculptural, installation and performative practice hinges upon its engagement and activation of an audience.
It’s an idea that’s impossible to escape while wondering Look Now, See Forever, the exhibition of new and recent Kusama works punctuating Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in celebration of its fifth birthday and, as many might suggest, coming of age as one of Australia’s leading contemporary art institutions. Though her reputation and personal story often precede her – she has lived by choice in Tokyo mental facility since the mid 70s after several suicide attempts and a lifetime battling mental illness – spending time in the midst of her vast works is little short of an enveloping experience.
Reach Up to the Universe, Dotted Pumpkin positions its protagonists – two large aluminium pumpkins punctured with circular holes, their respective interiors painted with black and bright orange – amid a intricate arrangement of spatial cues and effects, courtesy of a scattering of convex mirrors. It’s not so much disorientating, but exploratory. Gazing into the curved mirrors, we’re afforded endless recurring vantages of the space, the objects and the people who fill it. Dots Obsession employs a similar device, but to dizzying effect. Mirrored walls extend the room’s red and white polka-dotted surfaced and massive, amorphous, inflatable red orbs into a never-ending span of colour and spots. No matter where we glance, the space continues forever. We lose ourselves – our ego and specificity – to a collective eternity. It is both a joyous house of mirrors and complex optical and philosophical gesture.
Kusama’s 2010 remake of her video work Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict echoes this dialogue. As she feebly sings an arcane ode to camera, lurid psychedelic washes and patterns envelop with screen behind her. It is filled with both wonder and tragedy. “Tear down the gate of hallucinations,” she sings. “Amidst the agony of flowers, the present never ends… I become a stone.”
This odd balance continues in the main space, which features her bold Flowers that Bloom at Midnight and a series of vibrant recent paintings, including the incredible, four-panel TRANSMIGRATION work, which conjures an anomalous textural space, somewhere between physicality and surface, absence and void. Huge in scale, the sculptures read as part playful pop caricature, part alien presence. They are blissful but menacing – a child’s fantasy world or an adult’s mutant nightmare.
Perhaps the work that speaks of Kusama’s unique gifts the loudest is the final installation in the show. The obliteration room comprises a domestic setting replete with kitchen, lounge room, sofas, ornaments and cutlery – every single surface of which has been muted in a layer of matt white paint – that every visitor and audience member invited to “obliterate” via colourful polka-dot stickers.
It is the ultimate gesture of inclusion and collaboration. Over the course of the exhibition, every visitor has the opportunity to shape the installation’s course. Like many of Kusama’s greatest works, it’s seemingly the simplest of ideas and devices that are in fact the most resonant and significant.
Look Now, See Forever shows at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane until March 11.