ARTIQ Reviews | Victoria Miro: THE MOVING MOMENT WHEN I WENT TO THE UNIVERSE
Considering the recent frenzied appetite for the work of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama, there is a certain sense of cynicism that pervades when swiftly ushered up the stairs of the Victoria Miro gallery to unwittingly join a queue of punters awaiting their slot in the purpose-built infinity room. iPhones to hand, invigilators primed to chaperone, your allotted 1-minute experience in ‘My heart is dancing into the universe’ is not only spelled out to you twice over via diagrams and warnings of ‘disorientation’, but completely overwhelmed by its stop-watch timed brevity and the person behind asking you whether or not you would like a photo.
Of course, stripped from this phenomenon, is Kusama’s latest exploration of her Infinity Mirrored Room (1965), which, as the title suggests, is a playful leap into the unknown. Candescent, polka-dot paper lanterns bounce and multiply in the illusionistic infinite space, deceptively confronting one’s own selfhood. Reflection, compulsion but also play are motifs that perfectly describe the examination of human experience that imbues Kusama’s body of work. But it’s almost as though such a deeply personal experience doubles as a bridge to a world beyond the self and to something much more universal. The much criticised ‘selfie-culture’ surrounding the artist’s work provides an interesting dimension to this in the way that what can makes you feel so connected, can also, simultaneously, make you feel so disconnected. It is this notion of interconnectedness that underscores the exhibition’s portrayal of a complex model of the self, which is essentially the continuing process of Kusama’s oeuvre.
If they haven’t taken a selfie in one of her Infinity Room’s, the average millennial would most likely be acquainted with Kusama for her iconic Pumpkins, which populate Gallery I (Lower) in both large bronze and dissected paintings alike. The unapologetic, bulbous forms sit vivaciously in the centre of the space, mimicking versions of themselves on the surrounding walls. Seductively dazzling in both medium and palette and immaculately executed, these works exemplify Kusama’s personal eccentricity through the very winsome vegetations that intercepted the fantasy of a young girl and remained on her mind ever since. Rewind 20-30 years however, and what would suggest a seamless rise to countless, sold-out major solos, is far from the case. Kusama was denied exhibitions even in 2001, for being ‘too arty’ or, ‘too female’. In ’98, Kusama exhibited her first Infinity Room at Victoria Miro, where essentially no one turned up. This stems back to the artist’s struggle in the 1960’s. Working at the vanguard of the New York art scene, Kusama was essentially written out of pop art history compared to her male counterparts. However, quite marvellously, Kusama herself writes that her choice of pumpkin comes down to the fact that ‘they do not inspire much respect,’ but allude ‘generous unpretentiousness and a solid spiritual balance’. A fitting metaphor for Kusama’s artistic persona.
Another manifestation of the artist’s sense of self and preoccupation with nature accumulates in the large-scale, decorative-pop ‘Flowers that speak all about my heart given to the sky’. What began as explorations on canvas, are now rendered in three-dimensional form. Almost menacingly, the shiny, vibrant centrepieces twist and tower above you and invite movement, as they teeter between worlds of imagination and reality on the gallery’s terrace. The flowers act as complex forms, symbolic of the opposing forces of life.
As though to follow this gesture, the exhibition finally leads you up the gallery’s immense stairwell to a space flooded with an incredible light that only accentuates further the vibrant palette of Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series. An experiential journey through the gallery that in itself feels almost transcendental, the works themselves have an otherworldly effect that summons up something inherent. Patched together, the series creates an immersive environment that has an instinctual, primitive feeling as though a wall painting – or ‘ancient landscape’. Observed individually, each painting reveals itself to be profoundly quite dark with imagery of eyes, faces and other amoebic forms. Literature from the artist herself supports these notions further. You can only wonder to what extent Kusama’s Instagram fans grasp such elements. It can be easy to glide over the politics of her work, as at surface-level they are attractive, entertaining and essentially kitsch. Likening Kusama’s work to pretty diversions, however, is exactly the hardship Kusama has faced over decades and reviews of this latest exhibition ‘as no more interesting than a lava lamp’ only exacerbates this misapprehension. In fact, and more so ironically, pretty does arise from pain and these are the radical ideas Kusama has always and continues to explore within her work.
More importantly and interpretations aside, we have all reached the same end game here: a celebration of Kusama’s success. The fact that her exhibitions must be ticketed and time-allocated, is not only a celebration of an 89-year-old artist working at the top of her game, but of the most successful living female artist to date.
Review by Jade Straker, Personal and Arts Assistant to CEO, ARTIQ