Glimpses of Yayoi Kusama’s Art Universe

loading Yayoi Kusama in front of her latest work Life is the Heart of a Rainbow. 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 194cm x 194cm.

A major survey exhibition of the most expensive living woman artist (since 2014) known for her hypnotic 3P’s – Prolific polka dots, Patterned Pumpkins and Psychedelic Mirrors (Infinity Nets) – will come to Singapore in June.

This eccentric and reclusive art supernova has had double appearances in the Venice Biennale in 1966 (Narcissus Garden) and 1993 (Pumpkin sculptures), apart from the Aichi Triennale in 2010; numerous retrospectives accorded by major museums; commissions of monumental sculpture/ mural; and prestigious awards including Japan’s Praemium Imperial (2006) – the first for a woman, apart from the Order of the Rising Sun (2006). Her other awards were the Asahi Prize (2001), the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003) and the Person of Cultural Merit (2009).

At 88 (on March 22), she enjoys rock-star attendance records for her exhibitions all over sans her personal appearance. Hugely multi-talented, she started with being a performance artist, was briefly a gallerist, and even excelled in three other creative fields – the 3Fs of Fiction (eight novels), Film (actress and producer) and Fashion (own “Kusama Fashion” brand in 1968 and collaboration with Marc Jacobs of Louis Vuitton and also Lancôme (six limited-edition lip-glosses).

Yes, it’s Yayoi Kusama, the Grandmother of Funky Optical Pop Art paraphernalia, and none else. Since 1997 or a bit earlier, she has made her studio base a psychiatric hospital (Seiwa) in Japan where she is an inmate, and thereabouts.

Her Singapore exhibition is a specially tailored collaboration between the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) and the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), and is curated by NGS deputy director Russell Storer and Adele Tan. The NGS show will be on from June 10 to September 3, before travelling to the QAG.

Titled, “Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart of A Rainbow”, it boasts more than 120 original works spanning over seven decades from the 1950s, comprising paintings, sculptures, videos and room-scale installations and will include her latest soft sculptures. Yayoi is no stranger to Singapore, but her works were only seen piecemeal at Art Stage Singapore, besides Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Expo Malaysia in KL. In the 2006 Singapore Biennale, the Kusama trademark dotted trees on Orchard Road.

Table Setting, part of the "The Obliteration Room" installation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, the US.

Why Yayoi?

NGS: “(She’s) an artist from Asia who has made a significant impact in the US and Europe in the 1950s to the 1970s, and now globally since the 1990s.”

What to expect from this Singapore show?

1) Never-seen-before (nsb) latest works of her soft sculptures;

2) Several “nsb” works from her My Eternal Soul series (started in 2009) which unerringly played with themes of death and colours including the eponymous Life is the Heart of a Rainbow;

3) Works from immediate past series, Love Forever;

4) An Infinity Mirror room installation, Gleaming Lights of the Soul, a mirrored chamber of constellations of polka dots in cosmic infinity, on loan from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark;

5) Iconic installations such as Narcissus Garden and Dots Obsession;

6) Documentations of her early performances and happenings in the US in the 1960s;

7) Works from 1970s to 1990s rarely seen outside Japan; and

8) Her work, The Obliteration Room, will grace the opening of the inaugural Children’s Biennale on May 20, as a drum-roll for a spell of “Kusa-mania”.

Yayoi Kusama's Pumpkin l (Gold) Edition 9-60, engraving, 42cm x 50cm, 2000, shown at the Singapore-based Kato Art Duo Gallery at International Art Expo Malaysia in 2016.

Immersive works selected from her various series will hopefully offer glimpses into her “interdisciplinary approach to art – the use of dots, nets, infinite repetition and body in her work, and the belief in the interconnectedness of the universe.” She is among the first to break from the Nihonga tradition of Uemura Shoen nee Tsune (1875-1949).

Also planned are panel discussions, talks, workshops and guided tours.

At present, a Yayoi retrospective comprising a record six Infinity Mirror installations is touring North America, starting with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. in the US (February 23-March 14, 2017) before hitting Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto and Cleveland. The Hirshhorn show got off to a ghastly start when a visitor stepped on her Pumpkin sculpture valued at at least US$700,000 while taking a selfie. It’s noteworthy that Yayoi’s first Infinity Mirror room was of spotted penises (1965).

It can be said that the polka-dot phenomenon is something biological as Yayoi has been “stricken” with bouts of polka-dot hallucinations since the age of 10, and she has reverse-managed this malady into a fortune and an industry. More poignant, perhaps, is the palliative self-healing process of art-making of infinite dots. In 2014 she amassed a total of US$34.6mil from 510 auction lots, including her record-setting US$7,109,000 premium at Christie’s New York for her White No. 28#1 (1960) from her Infinity Net series (Source: Artprice). Another Infinity work, Red B (1960), garnered a US$7,034,566 premium at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong October 2015 sale.

Yayoi Kusama's "Red Pumpkin" installation at Naoshima, Japan.

The next most expensive living women artist after Yayoi are Cady Noland (b. 1956, daughter of Kenneth), who scored US$6.6mil in 2011; Bridget Riley (b. 1931) US$5.1mil in 2008; Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) US$4.6mil 2013; and Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) US$3.9mil 2011.

On her polka dots, she reportedly remarked: “A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colourful, senseless and unknowing, polka dots become movement. Polka dots are a way to infinity.

“When I create my work, I'm not forcing to bring the polka dots into it. Subconsciously, it became polka dots always by itself.”

She also intoned: “The moon is a polka dot, the sun is a polka dot, and then, the earth where we live is also a polka dot… All my works are the products of obsessional neurosis and are inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.”

In her 2014 retrospective at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City called “Infinite Obsession”, the museum, taking a cue from her two million high attendance for her South American tour, hired extra security to control the crowd pandemonium. Used to a paltry 500 visitors a month, Museo Tamayo was hitting a record 2,100 daily, and had to time the viewing of the Mirror exhibits to less than a minute, with staggered entry times.

Yayoi Kusama's installation at the Gagosian Gallery in New York.

Her earlier Asian exhibitions had all registered record attendances – Shanghai (China, “A Dream I Dreamed”), New Delhi (India) and Kaohsiung (Taiwan).

The same year, her exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia were averaging a mind-boggling 7,957 to 8,936 visitors a day. That year, Australian hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck was also attracting long, long queues in Sao Paulo.

Obviously, a Yayoi Kusama show is like a sought-after trophy-wife by the leading museums with satisfied clients including the Museum of Modern Art New York (1998), the Whitney in New York (2012), Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid (2011), the Tate Modern, London (2012), and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark (2015). Other stops included Sydney (Australia), Wellington (New Zealand) in 2009; Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Daegu (South Korea) in 2013; Moscow (Russia) in 2015; and Oslo, Norway, in 2016.

Born in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan, in 1929, Yayoi grew up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive mother and a philandering father. In 1957 she decided to leave for the US, first to Seattle, and then New York City, following the footsteps of Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889- 1953). She had her first solo at the Braga Gallery in New York in 1959. Her mother gave her a farewell gift of one million yen, cutting off family ties with her completely with that. Pollock and de Kooning were all the rave in NY then, with their Action Painting, but Yayoi gravitated more to the group that included Joseph Cornell, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Eva Hesse.

Dots obsession by Yayoi Kusama at Parc La Villette in Paris' 19th arrondissement.

Her earlier performance art in New York like that in protest against the Vietnam War had nude dancers covered with yes, polka dots (1969). There was a flag-burning stunt on Brooklyn Bridge (1968), while another staged a grand orgy at the fountain of MOMA’s sculpture garden to awaken the dead.

She starred in her self-produced film, Self-Obliteration (1968), starred in Ryu Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence (1991) and collaborated with Peter Gabriel in an installation in Yokohama in 1991.

After her book of poems and paintings simply titled 7 came out in 1977, she went on a binge of eight novels – Manhattan Suicide Addict (1978), The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street (1983), The Burning of St Mark’s Church (1985), Between Heaven and Earth (1988), Woodstock Phallus Cutter (1988), Aching Chandelier (1989), Double Suicide at Sakuragazuka (1989) and Angels in Cape Cod (1990).

Her outdoor sculptures include Pumpkin (Fukuoka Museum of Art); Visionary Flowers (Matsumoto City Museum of Art); Bloom (Matsudai Station in Niigita); Tulips de ShangriLa (Euralille, Lille, France); Pumpkin (Atbunka-mura, Naoshima); Hello, Anyang with Love (Pyeonghwa Park, Anyang); The Hymn of Life: Tulips (Beverley Gardens Park, Los Angeles; and a mural for the Gare do Orientae station in Lisbon, Portugal.

Hype or no, her works are provocative and full of contradictions, entertaining and colourful, visually captivating with a sense-surround resonance.

At present, the NGS is showing three exhibitions (until December 3) on the evolution of Chinese ink painting and its impact on Singapore. They are 1) Rediscovering Treasures: Ink Artfrom the Xiu Hai Lou Collection; 2) Strokes of Life: The Art of Chen Chong Swee; and 3) Wu Guanzhong: A Walk Through Nature.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

Related Articles

May 2012

George Town's "Mr Festival"

George Town Festival director Joe Siek has speaks on how far now-iconic festival has come.

Dec 2013

Abundant treasures in Penang Batik's Painting Museum

Batik has long since transitioned from a craft tradition to an art movement.

Oct 2016

Fired by the Charm of Ceramics

A series of contemporary ceramic exhibitions in recent months has reignited interest in the art.

Jun 2015

Art thefts are big business

Malaysian art gets stolen more often than you might think.