The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at M+ sheds new light on the Japanese artist

Written by Stephy ChungKristie Lu Stouthong kong

CNN International will air a preview of Yayoi Kusama as part of its New Year’s Eve livestream on December 31.

Advanced age and the pandemic did little to deter Japan’s Yayoi Kusama. At 93, the world’s best-selling living female artist still paints daily at the psychiatric hospital she voluntarily visited and has lived in since the 1970s.

Some of his latest creations feature alongside his early drawings in a new exhibition at the M+ museum in Hong Kong. Bringing together more than 200 works, « Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Today » spans seven decades as the largest retrospective of his art in Asia outside his home country.

Best known for her signature pumpkin carvings and polka dot paintings, which can fetch millions of dollars at auction, Kusama’s success has skyrocketed over the past decade. The most photogenic parts of his oeuvre – including his immersive « Infinity Mirror Room » installations, whose tickets sell out in museums around the world – have gained mainstream appeal in the age of social media.

Needless to say, her new exhibit in Hong Kong is filled with Instagram-friendly moments. But the museum’s deputy director, Doryun Chong, who co-curated the exhibit, says he hopes visitors will take the opportunity to dive deeper.

« Kusama is so much more than pumpkin carvings and polka dot patterns, » he explained. “She is a deep philosophical thinker – a groundbreaking figure who has truly revealed so much about herself, her vulnerability (and) her struggles as an inspiration for her art.”

Exhibition of the artist’s self-portraits. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

infinity and beyond

Organized chronologically and thematically, the show explores concepts that Kusama has revisited across multiple mediums over the course of his career. The notion of infinity, for example, appears as repeating patterns inspired by the vivid hallucinations experienced in childhood, when she would see everything around her consumed by seemingly endless patterns.

Visitors get a sense of how these forms evolved, starting with a room filled with her « Infinity Net » paintings – including a groundbreaking work she created after seeing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time since an airplane window when she moved to the United States from Japan in 1957.

These nets reappear in « Self-Obliteration », an installation created between 1966 and 1974, a period after Kusama established herself in the male-dominated art world of New York despite the discrimination she faced as a woman, and Japanese too. (She believed that male peers like Andy Warhol were copying her ideas without credit). Comprised of six mannequins around a dining table, every inch of the sculpture – from human figures to furniture and cutlery – is covered in small, looping brushstrokes.

The motif later reappears to bold, vibrant effect, filling bodies with amoeba-like shapes in selected works from « My Eternal Soul, » a series of hundreds of acrylic paintings she began in 2009 and completed the following year. last year. They appear in the retrospective’s colorful « Force of Life » section, which immediately follows the one titled « Death, » a contrast that speaks both to the dichotomies of Kusama’s work and the internal struggles that underlie it.

« Nowadays we’re very used to (people) talking about their mental health issues, but it’s been 60 to 70 years since she started doing that, » Chong said. « It really runs throughout her life and her career, but it never really stays in a dark place. She always proves that by talking about death and even her suicidal thoughts and her illness, she reaffirms and regenerates his will to live. »

Elsewhere, the exhibition features lesser-known pieces from the artist’s repertoire, highlighting what she created mid-career, when she returned to Japan depressed and disillusioned. Among them is a black and white padded fabric sculpture from 1976 entitled « Death of a Nerve ».

Although less known, the curators of the exhibition consider "Death of a nerve" be a centerpiece. It was made in 1976, the year before she voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital.

Although less well known, the curators of the exhibition consider « Death of a Nerve » to be a masterpiece. It was made in 1976, the year before she voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

A 2022 version of the work, created for M+ and slightly renamed « Death of Nerves », is also on display. Made on a much larger scale and rendered in full color, it embodies a sense of resilience and even optimism unlike the original. An accompanying poem acknowledges that after a suicide attempt his nerves were left « dead and shredded ». After a while, however, a « universal love » began to « run through my whole body », she wrote; the revived nerves « burst into beautifully vibrant colors…stretching out to the infinity of eternity ».

"death of nerves" visible from several levels of the museum.

« Death of Nerves » can be viewed from several levels of the museum. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

« It’s an unusual piece for Kusama because most people associate it with pumpkins, or halls of mirrors, or more Pop shapes, but it’s a very soft sculpture that she’s always worked on, ever since. the beginning », explained Mika Yoshitake. , an independent curator who has worked on the M+ exhibition with Chong, as well as Kusama’s previous exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and the New York Botanical Garden.

« I think she’s amazing to be able to maintain her strength through art, » added Yoshitake, who last saw Kusama in 2018, before the pandemic hit. « She is determined to have her story told. »

Small in comparison, a group of 11 paintings the artist began in 2021 and completed this summer, titled « Every Day I Pray for Love. »

« She always said ‘love forever,’ Yoshitake said. She wants people to be at peace, to have that warmth, and to take care of each other. There’s so much conflict and war, terrorism, a lot of things she sees in the world, especially through this pandemic. »

An image of Kusama wearing a signature red wig, featured in the exhibit material.

An image of Kusama wearing a signature red wig, featured in the exhibit material. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

In a short email interview with CNN, Kusama explained his dedication to his art.

« I paint every day, » she said. « I will continue to create a world in awe of life, embracing all messages of love, peace and the universe. »

Ever since she was a teenager, Kusama has read poetry and Chinese literature « with deep respect », she said. As such, she added, she is « happy » to have her work exhibited in Hong Kong.

According to M+, the exhibition has now been described as « the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work to date », by curator and critic Akira Tatehata, who is director of the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo. Tatehata, who visited the museum in November, has long supported the artist and curated his solo representation of Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993.

The healing power of art

The retrospective also has a special meaning for M+, which used the show to mark its first anniversary.

Since its conception more than ten years ago, the museum has been presented as the Asian answer to the Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When it finally opened its doors last year, it faced unique challenges, ranging from Hong Kong’s changing political environment, which continues to raise censorship issues across all sectors, including the arts , to the pandemic restrictions that closed the museum for three months and, until recently, barred most international visitors. from the city. But Chong sees the latter, at least, as « a blessing in disguise. »

« For a global museum to open and be embraced by our local audiences, first and foremost, in its first year couldn’t have been a better way to start the museum, » he said.

Polka dot pumpkins located at the entrance to the museum.

Polka dot pumpkins located at the entrance to the museum. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Welcoming its 2 millionth visitor recently, M+ hopes the easing of Covid restrictions will allow more people from abroad to view its vast collection, which includes China’s greatest treasure of contemporary art, and the Kusama exhibition, which runs until May.

“(Kusama is) living proof that art is indeed therapy and has powerful healing power,” Chong said. « And that’s such an important lesson, especially for us during this post-pandemic time. »

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