Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Yayoi Kusama at the Tate Modern

"Exhibitions should be free, not a dollar fifty."
          -Yayoi Kusama, Press Release for 'Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MOMA,' 1969.

If you aren't familiar with Yayoi Kusama's work you might enjoy the retrospective at the Tate Modern. But you probably wouldn't understand just why it is that Kusama has such a cult following. As great as some of the earlier works on paper are, the exhibition just doesn't focus on her best work. It's ten pounds to get into the exhibition and so before it even begins you feel the weight of time and the institution pushing back Kusama's radicalism.

I should probably note that I had very high expectations. I've read reviews and spoken to others and it seems like those who are particularly fond of Kusama were disappointed while others enjoyed the show. It could be that I'd already seen the better parts of the exhibition in better settings. But still: I thought the Tate Modern would have the budget and the clout to put on something really spectacular.


When I was in Australia over Christmas I found everybody was talking about the retrospective at GOMA in Brisbane. I consoled myself for missing this with the thought of the Tate Modern's retrospective. It seems everyone who went to that exhibition was talking about Kusama's Obliteration Room, where visitors are given stickers to put on the walls and furniture so that gradually the white surfaces are completely covered. It's fun, but it's also more than that - it's a piece tied to Kusama's practice of using dots as a way of dissolving the disconnect between self and environment- which is why I was surprised to find it being used as a children's activity in the Tate Modern's Clore Learning Centre, separate to the rest of the show.

I didn't see the GOMA show, but I can attest to the Sydney MCA's 2009 retrospective as better than the Tate Modern's (that said, their Yinka Shonibare and Olafur Eliasson shows were equally impressive; the MCA does well). It included most of the highlights of the Tate Modern show (save the ephemera, which I'll discuss a bit later) and showed them more effectively.

Even the mirror room in this retrospective, billed as the largest ever of her mirror rooms, commissioned by the Tate, isn't that different to the mirror rooms shown in Sydney. There were a variety of mirror environments at the MCA and the experience wasn't spoilt by attendants yelling "move along please" as you shuffled through in a line or by the large openings at either side which spoilt the illusion. The mirror rooms in Sydney were total; you stepped inside and closed the door and you were surrounded in every direction. You can't tell the size of a room when you're inside a space which really stretches to infinity as the mirror rooms do when done well.

But comparisons aside, the Tate Modern show felt like an affront to some things central to Kusama's artistic vision. Kusama's works are never allowed, in the Tate, to take over spaces, but are always confined by the institution. Floors marked with "Please do not cross the lines" are theoretically to protect the artwork but serve simultaneously to sap them of their threat. Kusama's bulbous forms, creeping out of boxes, are contained and displayed, no longer disturbing intruders.

The crowds are just too thick, too. But a really good exhibition can make you forget the people around you or cause you to enjoy the way everyone gasps in collective awe.

The highlight is the collection of ephemera relating to Kusama's earlier career. I loved Georgia O'Keefe's letter offering advice to Kusama upon her first trip to America. Joseph Cornell's artwork-as-cards, sent to Kusama during the 1960s, were also charming. Kusama's own notes showcased her interesting way of seeing the world; dealing with the media is described as "like war". These pieces of Kusama's personal life are particularly appealing because her personality is so linked to her artwork, but a lot of visitors -perhaps unaware of this- seemed to be skipping these sections altogether.

There were files relating to the 1966 scandal when her installation, Narcissus Garden, was restricted by the Venice Biennale adminstration. Kusama had wanted to sell each orb for $2, claiming "people should be able to buy art as easily as food at the supermarket and socks at the haberdasher," but was angrily told "you can't sell art like hotdogs or icecream cones at the Venice Biennale". This piece was a part of the MCA's retrospective and I do think it should have been here as well; Narcissus Garden is a significant part of Kusama's career, a bridge between performance, politics and installation, and still retains its original aesthetic merits.

Kusama's positive early reviews are exciting. Her press releases are delightful; I'd go to see a show consisting purely of those, with brilliant lines like "at the museum you can take your clothes off in good company: Renoir; Maillol; Giacometti; Picasso" and "my love is like mixed media, mixing you and me". She holds a performance themed on Alice in Wonderland ("the grandmother of the hippies"), obliterates live bikini models and holds a polka dot dance party.

One poster encourages her fans to "OBLITERATE THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING! OBLITERATE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY!" I wish the Tate Modern had used their funds to facilitate this; it would have been amazing. Christo wrapped Central Park; surely we can cover the Empire State Building with dots?

This ephemera is all fantastic. The problem is that it makes you feel like Kusama's career is behind her, that she's no longer radical or relevant in the way she once was, and I don't think this is true. She's still alive and producing art; her work felt new and radical even at Frieze (tough for any artist). This isn't absent from the exhibition, but when I went the room with her most recent paintings (which aren't as good as her most recent sculpture or video pieces, which weren't shown) it was dominated by the queue for the final room and had the atmosphere of a lobby.

Kusama's 1969 press release poem about MOMA included the jibe that "no life stirs [...] where DON'T TOUCH is the rule". It's unfortunate to find this criticism can now be leveled against Kusama's own retrospective. The display of ephemera shows how many world changing shows Kusama has had; this isn't one of them. I'd recommend Mondrian and Nicholson at the Courtauld instead (or afterwards, to restore your faith in your heroes). 

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