Six decades of Yayoi Kusama disorients and delights at Tate Modern

By Mark Sheerin | 07 February 2012
Colour photo of a mirrored room decorated with pink discs, reflecting to infinity
Yayoi Kusama, The Passing Winter (detail) (2005). Presented by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2008.© Tate Photography
Exhibition: Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern, London, February 9 – June 5 2012

If you didn’t know better, you might think Yayoi Kusama’s 35-year tenure of a bed in a mental hospital has been some kind of psychedelic holiday. There’s a gloss on the work in the second half of this show, which most art brut doesn’t have.

Take the room-sized installation I’m Here, but Nothing: a domestic scene is lit by UV strips and swims beneath a layer of glowing polka dots. If this is 'visual shorthand' for the artist’s hallucinations, falling ill must be pretty groovy.

Then there are the multi-panel acrylics made in a studio on the ward. These cropped enlargements of vegetative or cellular life share, with much outsider art, an obsessive approach to detail. But look at the professional finish and the brightness.

Finally, another funhouse installation called Infinity Mirrors Rooms allows you to walk through a nightscape of hanging, colour changing neon bulbs. Tate signage warns you this might be disorientating. But most visitors will emerge sane.

Duotone pink photo of an artist on her back amidst a sea of polka dots
Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama  (1965). Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo© Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Yayoi Kusama studio inc. Photo: Eikoh Hosoe
Perhaps this is the psychiatric equivalent of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. The vulnerable Kusama has cleaned up her worst experiences and shone a light on them for the rest of us. So beyond disorientation, we need have nothing to fear.

But such was not always the case. In a survey covering six decades, one of the first major installations features a row boat sprouting stuffed fabric phalli which colonise all the available surfaces. A woman’s shoe lies abandoned. Where is the woman?

Lit by two spots and afloat in a sea of wallpaper images of itself, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show has the ghostly presence you might expect from a forgotten mental patient. Only, this was when the Japanese artist was very much at large.

Aggregation was first shown in an early Pop Art exhibition in New York which featured at least two artists who were taking notes. The soft forms reappear in the work of Claes Oldenburg and the wallpaper crops up in Andy Warhol’s oeuvre.

It is hard to reconcile this spectral pop art with the kaleidoscopic polish of her later work, not to mention her large white Ab Ex canvases of the 1950s or the performance art hippy she became in the 60s.

Her return to Japan and subsequent living arrangements cast Kusama as a casualty. But this conclusion doesn't account for such a colourful second act. So here is a puzzle, troubling and delightful in equal measure. This show proves the value of an obsession with art.

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