Art: Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern

Mental problems, minimalism and psychedelic drugs: Yayoi Kusama explores our obsession with the self 

-Mirka Virtanen


I really liked it. But I am easy to please, and the Tate rarely disappoints. Visually, I liked the show. And in terms of yet another lesson in history of art, I liked it. I feel like I learnt something: I thought that, as an artist, Yayoi Kusama was victimised. Victimised into being a woman and being crazy and obsessive – that is what I was taught at university – and every single review of this exhibit does use the words compulsive and obsessive either together or separately (always be cautious of those two words when used in any relation to a female or womanhood in general) – and, also, during my walk around the exhibition space, I did overhear someone saying ‘I know she has mental problems… that’s probably the biggest influence.’

But hey-ho. The lady who came up with that (and it does make it worse that it was said in a very matter-of-fact, almost indifferent, tone of voice), was clearly missing the obvious. I know not everyone in London can read but I do assume that the target audience of the show are all literate people, and thankfully, at the Tate, they are so generous with the information, it’s like wowza I need to write this down so that I remember and I can quote it to someone as I would have just thought of it myself when I went to see this exhibition, I just got it, what a great artist, I just got it by looking at her work.

Anyway, lady, you get a blurb per room. That is fourteen rooms. Fourteen chances to get it right. And then you get the artwork. The text is just there to acknowledge that no matter how upper middle class your social status is, your talent might not be abstract thinking. And that is where you missed your chance. Tate’s exhibition does not focus on Kusama as a bunny boiler crazy woman. It is a retrospective of the work of an artist, who constantly and continuously stages herself as a character in a fucked-up society that is also beautiful, and ever-changing, and challenging to live in.

The really good, standard Tate-thing about the show is that it takes you by the hand and guides you through the six or seven decades (I’m bad at maths; Kusama started in the 1940s, however long that makes of it) of, in this case, staging-self-through-art. It’s all chronological and clear and interest-provoking, question-evoking and pretty, even, and sometimes slightly disturbing, maybe, depending on what you classify as disturbing. Bit by bit, the show sets the artist as part of both social and artistic canons of the time, starting from the fragile and somewhat delicate early paintings and works on paper, and ending at the ultimate statement of the un-accessible artistic self (whether you’re trying to catch an escaping notion of the artist or yourself, all you get is surface): the Infinity Mirrored Room.  It’s beautiful, by the way.

In between the beginning and the end of the exhibition, there are a thousand things possibly worth talking about, however definitely more worth seeing. The chronological order and display of the work enables the viewer to easily track down the possible influences and events behind the development of Kusama’s artistic career. Her art, presented in this light, rather than offering an alternative understanding of the world from an outsider’s point of view  ‘in the predominately white, male New York art world’ (which is, nevertheless, touched upon: Room 6, ‘Walking Piece’), it expands the notions of all major post-modern art movements from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, Minimalism and the beginnings of installation art. Also, her initial performances profoundly connect to the rise of hippie culture in the sixties.

She did it all. Something that none of her white, male, New York art-world contemporaries chose not to do but instead, they busied themselves in perfecting their set disciplines. In 1973, she moved back to Japan, checked into rehab, and living in the hospital’s nest of calm and quietness happily ever after, she continues to explore her experience of the decade that started our obsession with the self.

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