Search Instagram for “Yayoi Kusama” and you will get thousands of photos – everything from selfies to OOTD shots – featuring the art legend’s creations. Little surprise, really. Kusama’s polka dots, pumpkins and kaleidoscopic lights are tailor-made for a generation seemingly obsessed with both image-making and themselves.
But viewed within the context of the Kusama’s body of work, such photographs start seeming less like superficial snapshots and more like an extension of her art.
Yayoi, 88, has spent most of the 70 years of her career wresting control of the external, specifically male gaze, and using the act of being seen to generate her own narratives. Mobile devices and social media offer similar freedoms, allowing users to take control of image-making and in the process, the stories they want to tell about themselves.
Seeing these two acts of creation inevitably intertwine – something Yayoi herself has encouraged in past interviews – is a fascinating lens through which to experience her art.
Currently on show at the National Gallery Singapore, Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow displays over 120 works spanning the Japanese artist’s career.
A forerunner of pop art and feminist art, she is considered an essential part of the avant-garde movement, influencing the likes of Andy Warhol, George Segal and Claes Oldenburg after moving to New York City in the late 1950s.
Her numerous achievements include receiving the Asahi Prize (2001), the Order of the Rising Sun (2006), and becoming the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious art prizes. She is also widely acknowledged as one of Japan’s most important living artists.
This Singapore exhibition, a first of its kind in South-East Asia, takes a chronological approach to Yayoi’s work, providing visitors with an understanding of how her artistic vision developed. From her early foray into avant garde art to her latest ongoing series My Eternal Soul, which includes over 500 large canvases (24 are featured in Singapore), it is an encompassing exploration.
While her signature polka dots, infinity mirror rooms and infinity net paintings are undoubtedly the major draws, the exhibition presents her work across a wide variety of media, from paintings, sculptures, collages and video to large-scale installations.
Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow is divided into three sections. The first traces her signature motifs back to her beginnings in the 1950s, displaying her exploration of colour, form and space. The second section deals more directly with works about the body, sexuality and politics, including sculpture, performance and video. The final section brings us to Yayoi’s most recent work, which situate her squarely in the now.
Yet, what is striking is how consistent Yayoi’s themes are, and how certain motifs and ideas are repeated over and over, but in startlingly different ways. In exhibitions like these, her persistence in taking control of her own narrative and telling it in all its complexity becomes even more apparent. Her difficult childhood, her struggles with mental health, her ambivalence towards sex, and her challenges of being a woman are all poured into her work.
Notions of the self and identity are constantly evoked, most notably in a process she terms “self-obliteration”, reflected by the nets and dots she so often covers her works in.
She attributes these to childhood hallucinations where she began seeing dots all around her, and uses them in various ways to symbolise an erasure of the self to the point of being integrated with the environment. Beginning first as monochrome canvases, it is quite something to see these expand over time to literally fill whole rooms.
Despite their photo-friendliness, many of these works display an underlying sense of anxiety when experienced in real life. A white room containing giant white tulips covered in brightly-coloured dots (With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever), for instance, initially evokes childlike delight. This feeling, however, soon mingles with a vague sense of dread as our perception of depth and size are confused.
Similarly, the infinity room can simultaneously be magical and disconcerting. Stepping into Gleaming Lights Of The Soul, a room-sized installation where lights and mirrors replicate dots endlessly to create an immersive experience, comes closest to experiencing Yayoi’s self-obliteration – a sensation that is somewhere between awe and fear.
In contrast, the infinity room The Spirits Of The Pumpkins Descended Into The Heavens evokes both whimsy and comfort, with its peep box of yellow-and-black pumpkins stretching out endlessly.
Exhibited alongside this are paintings and large mosaic sculptures of pumpkins, all of which exude an air of nostalgia. Unsurprisingly, Yayoi associates these kabocha (pumpkin in Japanese) with security, comfort and balance, as her family grew them when she was a child.
Her soft sculptures push the boundaries further, approximating discomfiting, organic shapes covered in dots or garish hues. Some from the early 1960s directly reflect her apprehension of men and masculinity, rendering phallic shapes in comically ineffectual ways. These are accompanied by some of Yayoi’s most overtly political works, including her performances protesting the Vietnam War and Wall Street.
Her more recent sculptures, meanwhile, are exhibited in a gallery amidst the My Eternal Soul series – a collection of strange, vividly-coloured forms that sit somewhere between the real and the imaginary. The overall effect is at first confrontational, with its riot of colours and shapes, but becomes surprisingly more comforting the longer one spends in the room.
As the latest evolution of Yayoi’s work, this final gallery feels like it captures the artist at this exact point in time: strange yet familiar, larger-than-life yet intimate, pulsing with energy yet infused with a peculiar stillness.
And like so much of the rest of her work, it feels both manufactured and intensely personal. This, perhaps, answers the question of just how an 88-year-old woman who began creating art decades before selfies and Instagram filters were even imagined, connects so seamlessly with the visual culture of the Internet age.
Yayoi instinctively understands that space where image-making intersects with authenticity, the power of laying yourself bare while controlling your own narrative. Whether seven decades ago when she first entered the art world or today, there is still something seductively radical about that.
Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow is showing at the National Gallery Singapore till Sept 3. More info: www.nationalgallery.sg.