SINGAPORE: At the age of 88, Yayoi Kusama is the undisputed rock star of the art world.
From the notorious queues at her museum shows to hundreds of thousands of images of her artworks flooding social media, the Japanese avant garde artist inspires a kind of fan mania rarely witnessed in the art scene today.
So when the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) officially opens the doors to her highly anticipated Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow show on Friday (June 9), one should expect Kusama Craze to hit these shores.
No exhibition in Singapore has had so much buzz and hype months in advance. When Channel NewsAsia broke the news in March, the online article was shared a couple of thousand times, including by fans in neighbouring countries.
And going by the madness surrounding the Kusama shows in Washington DC and Tokyo earlier this year, the museum has been preparing for what could potentially be a record number of visitors for its undisputed blockbuster of the year.
It has set up crowd-control measures, stocked its in-house store with merchandise, and even thought of a hashtag, #sgloveskusama.
THE BIG HITS ARE HERE
The exhibition itself does not disappoint. With 120 artworks spanning 70 decades of prolific art-making, Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow is a solid survey of the artist’s extremely complex life and practice.
Those expecting her trademark polka dots and nets, pumpkins, and infinity mirror rooms will not be disappointed.
Her pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes, from mosaic sculptures to huge paintings. Get ready to be blown away by the sheer number of pumpkins in one of the infinity mirror rooms majestically titled The Spirits Of The Pumpkins Descended Into The Heavens.
Her dots and nets, too, are everywhere. From hints of their beginnings in the more understated paintings from the 1950s to her trademark infinity net paintings; from dotted soft sculptures to the delightfully disorienting With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever white room filled with colourful dots.
Two more infinity mirror installations round up the big hits — mesmerising kaleidoscopic environments in the shape of a small room and a small box with peepholes.
Even before entering the exhibition halls proper, one encounters her huge yellow-and-black dotted balls looming over the museum’s City Hall Courtyard. The pillars outside the museum are also wrapped in red-and-white dotted motifs, similar to what she did to the trees along Orchard Road back in 2006 for the Singapore Biennale.
All these will definitely attract handphone-toting visitors keen on taking selfies and wefies.
THE KUSAMA ENIGMA
But to focus on getting that OOTD shot while jostling the crowds or hurriedly posing in one of the infinity mirror rooms — which, for the record, the artist herself fully endorses — is just one part of the experience.
The show is ultimately an insightful look at not only the world’s most famous living artist, but also someone who is deeply complicated and enigmatic.
From her early paintings as a struggling artist in rural Matsumoto (surrounded by a disapproving family at that) all the way to the explosion of paintings done as recently as this year, it is hard not to be in awe of Kusama’s singular drive to create against the odds.
NGS curators Russell Storer and Adele Tan, together with their counterparts at Queensland Art Gallery, where the show travels to in November, have assembled a portrait of an artist whose many phases collectively form a life full of fascinating contradictions.
Here is the world’s most visible artist who lives a hermetic life. A one-time anti-capitalist performance artist who readily embraces the hyper-commercial world of contemporary art markets and fashion houses. A reluctant feminist icon who had no love lost for her mother.
Kusama makes art where she “obliterates” rooms and objects with her dots, or encourages a negation of self — even as her popular works feed a narcissistic, individualist visual culture on social media.
And while her creations play a part in boosting the egos of her young audience, she remains a deeply insecure artist.
She recently told Channel NewsAsia: “The path that I have walked through with my strong will has been acknowledged and I am pleased about it. However, I am not satisfied with myself. While some people praise me as an artist, I think that I am still at a starting point of my art so I have to try much much harder.”
PUMPKINS TO PHALLUSES
The exhibition’s first section reveals the roots of many of her trademark motifs. The pumpkin, for instance, was derived from her experiences growing up in a farm eating the vegetable, while the dots arose from hallucinations that would eventually grow into bigger anxieties that led to stints at a mental hospital.
But it is the second section that offers a much more layered appreciation of Kusama. The politics of the body was a major preoccupation for her, particularly after heading overseas in the 1960s. As an Asian woman in New York’s predominantly white male scene of the time, it was hard going. But that didn’t stop her.
From her anti-Vietnam War public performances, where she would also encourage people to go naked, to her artistic preoccupation with subverting the phallic symbol in sculptures, it was Kusama “at her most political”, explained Tan.
Her activist stance also resulted in a guerilla performance at the Venice Biennale, where she sold metallic balls for US$2 apiece as a statement against commercialism. (A recreation of that piece, Narcissus Garden, is also at the show — but sorry, the balls aren’t for sale.)
It’s this particular section that shows the lesser-known side of Kusama, especially among her younger generation of Insta-fans — who might also be surprised that decades before her Louis Vuitton collaboration, she was already doing fashion shows, albeit in a counter-culture kind of way.
“Her visual language transcends borders and (her works) are visually powerful. But (this section) shows the social dimensions of her work,” added Storer.
Despite all these, Kusama continued to feel like an outsider. Upon returning to Japan, that feeling remained as she was supposedly shunned by a public shocked by her antics in New York.
In 1977, Kusama checked into a mental hospital. She didn’t stop creating and even published a novel. By the early 1990s, she was firmly back in the international limelight, culminating in a return to the Venice Biennale, this time not as a rebel artist but as Japan’s official representative.
And perhaps one could say that these days, she is everyone’s representative, too.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that her greatest creation has been her life as Kusama, an iconic artist whose varied artistic phases connect with just about anyone.
In her art we spot vanity and altruism, spectacle and introspection, sophistication and child-like wonder. We see pop art, performance art, and immersive VR way before immersive VR came around.
Her struggle with mental illness inspires many, fashionistas adore her bags, Asian and female artists look up to her, and kids can also get in on the act (courtesy of the dot-sticker Obliteration Room installation at the basement as part of the museum’s concurrent Children’s Biennale show).
She’s the feel-good New Age hippie whose million-dollar artworks hang on the walls of the rich and famous. Her strange paintings connect with both mainstream hipsters and those on the fringes.
And as the show’s final section proves, she’s also the ultimate poster granny for active ageing, with an astounding array of big paintings and drawings she personally did quite recently.
So yes, by all means click and upload away on Instagram. But don’t forget that there’s much more to be discovered from an artist who has offered so much through the years.
Posing with Yayoi Kusama’s art makes for great pictures, but she’s way more than just a photo op.