Polka Dots, Mirrors and Pumpkins

Managing Editor Morgan Fairless renders a personal account of his evolving interactions with the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

I have purposefully avoided learning much about Yayoi Kusama throughout my appreciation of her art. This was a way of preserving the pure amusement that looking at her work gave me. Her art was valuable to me from a purely aesthetic point of view, nothing less, nothing more. Loaded with polka dots and playful contrasts, her work has made me feel at home in the diverse, unsettling worlds that she constructs.

Kusama is no niche or obscure artist. Far from it, her art has toured the world, and she has received countless awards and recognitions. Her exhibitions regularly get booked out, and thousands of fans queue up to see her paintings, sculptures and infinity room installations, which are so popular that visitors are only allowed a few moments inside them.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a minute in one of her installations. Her infinity rooms are perhaps one of the things that gained her the most recognition outside of artsy cliques. Through a play of lighting, sculptures and mirrors, she constructs an immersive and dazzling mirror room that instills an almost childlike sense of wonder. The exhibition at the Victoria Miro also features some of her equally awe inspiring paintings and sculptures.

Her work can be quite simple for some tastes. A recent Guardian review called Kusama “as artistic as a lava lamp” and gave her exhibition at the Victoria Miro two stars out of five. The reviewer mounts the argument that her work is simply not very inspiring, writing that her work is “as fun as fizzy drink – and as nourishing”. The scathing review may be onto something, I also sometimes get a feel of superficiality, especially when looking at the flower and pumpkin sculptures she creates. The polka dots, though pretty, can create a quite commercial and childish aesthetic, especially when obsessively repeated throughout the installation.

Yet, it is this word – obsession – that makes Kusama great.

What had initially been a scattered appreciation of someone’s work, took a deeper dimension once I got the chance to engage with it in real life. I suppose that what I am trying to say is not very inspired at all, yet it is worth overstating: appreciating art can take different forms and depths, and whilst superficiality and pure aesthetics may be condemned – as indeed they are in the case of Kusama – it is perhaps up to each of us to dig through the surface of things to get to a deeper appreciation. That can still be purely aesthetic, but it is the path to figuring out why we like something that makes art worth it.

Her art has a similar aesthetic throughout the decades of her production, and across the different mediums she has worked with. This is not a problem, it’s the sign of an artist with a penchant objective: to communicate her own psyche through her art. The painstaking repetition, the use of contrast and light, the immersive mirror rooms, they place you inside her thoughts.

Kusama calls herself an “obsessional artist”. Living a life mired with psychological problems – Kusama currently lives in a voluntary psychiatric home in Japan – she took to art early, as a way of exploring the hallucinations and obsessive thought patterns she started to struggle with; they would be a part of her – and her art – for the rest of her life.

It is only when faced with a whole collection of Kusama’s work that this obsessive, darker, facet of her work comes to light. What had for me been a nice – simply pretty – thing to look at for so long, took a deeper meaning when faced with it “in real life”.

Yayoi Kusama is exhibiting her work at the Victoria Miro until December 21.

The documentary “Kusama: Infinity” showcases the artist’s life. It is being shown in some cinemas in London and is available to stream online.


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