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Beyond the polka-dots: Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition

One may have seen the signature yellow-and-black polka dot pumpkins by the Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. However, what goes beyond these polka dots is a reflection of the cosmos in the shapes of sun and moon, and a phallic symbol of human beings. Her characteristic signs embody an unique philosophy that inspires people to forget themselves and obliterate into a wider and more profound universe.

To celebrate its debut anniversary, Hong Kong’s premiere contemporary art museum, M+, brings in Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, the largest retrospective of Yayoi Kusama in Asia outside her origin in Japan. The exhibition features more than 200 works of various art forms across six themes: Infinity, Accumulation, Radical Connectivity, Biocosmic, Death, and Force of Life, presenting an exposition of Kusama’s aesthetic philosophies concerning human, nature and the cosmos.

  1. Infinity

The concept of infinity frequently recurs throughout Kusama’s whole-life art. On her flight from Japan to New York in 1957, she was inspired by the vast and endless Pacific Ocean, which generated her initial idea for the series paintings Infinity Nets—consisting of huge canvas enveloped by seemingly endless and infinite brush strokes. In the following decades, Kusama continues the visualization of infinity by integrating nature, and life into the artworks to reflect on the human-environment relationships and the complexity of our lives and the world.

Transmigration, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, four panels

Different from most of Kusama’s palette connecting with the natural world, the unsettling combination of fluorescence green and red implies an artificially and toxically dangerous sense.

Created in the same year of the Fukushima nuclear accident , it seems self-evident that the painting symbolizes the floating compounds on the ocean. The title Transmigration, originating from the Buddhist cycle of rebirth, addresses on the vulnerability of life and the human-environment relationship.

2. Accumulation

The Moment of Regeneration, 2004. Sewn fabric, urethane foam, acrylic, wood, 54 parts

Inspired by her childhood experiences of seeing “a million white stones” on the riverbank, Kusama manipulates repetition and replication in her paintings and sculptures to convey the idea of boundless abundance. The series of Accumulation started from the 1960s when Kusama attached countless small fabric sacs onto daily objects, creating an interactive and immersive environment for the artist herself and the audience. The continuous intensive physical and mental labor involved in the creation process exhausted her to hospital several times.

As one of Kusama’s most monumental works in the 21st century, the fantastic installation appears like an evil mass of scarlet-red tentacles growing, blooming and exploding from the ground. The incredible soft sculpture delivers a weird while breath-taking visual effect as well as a vivid and strong dynamism of reproduction and regeneration of lives.

3. Radical connectivity This section features Kusama's challenging public performance art works since the end of 1960s, which collapse around two themes: connection and collectivity. In these works, she aimed to obliterate the individuality of humans and reconnect the self into the wider universe. These concepts also echoed counterculture movements that celebrates sexual liberation and champions civil rights and gay rights (a kind reminder to be aware of sensitive content if you are visiting with kids!) advocating civil rights and gay rights in America at that time, which brought her more attention and audience from the mainstream and social media to become a public artist. The section also includes Kusama’s creative posters and collages, reflecting the artistic engagement with social media.

4. Biocosmic

Growing up in Matsumoto surrounded by forests and mountains, Kusama has developed an exquisite appreciation and sympathy for florets and plants, which, she considers, share life dynamics with human beings. This section suggests her love for nature extending to the universe, exhibiting her artworks with characteristic dots in the symbolization of the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and other biological forms.

Sex Obsession, 1992. Acrylic on canvas, two panels. 194 x 260 cm.

Consisting of numerous clewing phallic tentacles, this painting presents a state of twisting and intertwining of multiple organic extensions which altogether form a new infinitely extending entity. The symbolic sign of human and sexuality in a bright yellow-and-black bold palette further highlights a mysterious but energetic ecstasy.

Pumpkins, 1998-2000. Mixed media. 6 pieces.

5. Death

Death of a nerve, 1976. Mixed media with stuffed fabric.

Kusama considers the creation of arts as a cure for the fear of death and illness. She never avoids expressing a darkened mood in her works with constant struggles with depression and hallucination, and frankly narrates her comprehension of life and destruction.

After witnessing the traumatic and miserable scenes of WWII and her important family members’ death (including her father and her partner Joseph Cornell), and coming back from America to Japan with her own disappointing career as a female Asian artist, Kusama’s works in the 1970s puts a profound and deeper insight into death and sadness. She expresses her works in both visual and lyrical forms through poetry.

Prisoner’s Door, 1994. Mixed media.

Compared to death, Kusama once expressed that she is more worried about suffering from illness. This wall-structured installation work, which seems to wrap humans within the two “arms”, embodies the artist’s struggle with her mental disorder—the silver branches twisting and connecting to form a door which seems to imprison her. However, the organic and dynamic composition simultaneously conveys a sense of life and rebirth, presenting us with Kusama’s determination to fight against mental suffering.

6. Force of life

In her later career, rebirth becomes a major theme to connect between her mental state and social conditions of disorientating collective experiences including wars, industrialization, environmental degradation. Rebirth of Kusama works serves as a vehicle to overcome challenges and heal through her art.

Nets and dots motifs are regularly featured that suggest continuity. More organic forms such as amoebae, shells and leaves; shapes that resemble eyes, fingerprints are used in repetition and obliterated in her paintings. Messages of love, peace and collectivity are spreaded in her works as an outlet for meditative and therapeutic practice, her ends of creating ‘art for the healing of all mankind’ meet.

Accompanied by three additional sections:

  1. Self-portrait

Self Portrait, 1995. Etching.

Self Portrait, 2015. Acrylic on canvas.

Self-portrait of Yayoi Kusama in polka dots onto her body in self obliteration that she is seemingly fused in nature formed by infinity nets and surroundings.

2. Self-Obliteration

Self-obliteration, 1966-1974. Paint on mannequins, table, chairs, wigs, handbags, mugs, plates, pitcher, ashtray, plastic plants, plastic flowers, and plastic fruit.

‘Forget yourself and become one with nature!’ - Yayoi Kusama. Kusama uses polka dot motifs so that people, objects and surroundings are all obliterated into nature and our body becomes part of the unity of our environment.

Nevertheless, the artist projects a consumerism focus through the use of a ‘macaroni carpet’ in which macaroni are mass-produced items to express overabundance of ‘stuff’ all over the floor under the dining table of the setup. Kusama once shared with one journalist: ‘Anything mass-produced robs us of our freedom. We, not the machine, should be in control’.

3. Clouds

Clouds, 2019. Embossed stainless steel.

This installation demonstrates how Kusama sees unity in nature, the universe and the self by using mirrors to engage and reflect ourselves into nature.

Death of nerves, 2022. Mixed media with sewn stuffed fabric and wires. Site-specific installation on G/F of M+ museum.

It is eye-opening to immerse in her artworks in heroic abstract expressionist scale paintings and three-dimensional installations. You can glimpse through the birth of the star - Yayoi Kusama, who witnesses constant mental illness, patriarchy, racism yet still keeps creating artworks with subtle power touching on Pop Art, Minimalism and Surrealism. Click here to get tickets and more information.

Exhibition Information—Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now

Time: 12 Nov 2022-14 May 2023

Location: West Gallery, The Studio, Main Hall & Lightwell, Found Space

Ticket information: 240 HKD for standard; 150 HKD for concession (including full-time students, children ages 7 to 11, senior citizens ages 60 or above, persons with disabilities and companion, and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients)

Photo | Little Stories - the Moment by Amy

Text | Vana & Amy from Artsolm Edit | Rachel from Artsolm Exhibition | M+ Yayoi Kusama Special Exhibition: 1945 to Now

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