The world of Yayoi Kusama is the kind of world that’s obsessive, molecular and psychedelic. Perhaps the kind of world that one might create on a mushroom trip. In this alternate universe of love and surreality lies an artist misunderstood from birth. Crippled by hallucinations ever since, Kusama found solace in art. And in-between multiple waves of art movements, her work has remained almost impossible to define and a mystery to many. Puzzling, but intriguing.
In Tokyo, she resides in a mental institution close to her studio, and remains as famously elusive as ever. At her current exhibition, Life is The Heart of a Rainbow, Russell Storer, the deputy director of curatorial and collections development at the National Gallery of Singapore, reveals why there is more to Yayoi Kusama than just a polka dot factory.
What is the significance of Kusama’s work in today’s society?
Yayoi Kusama is inarguably one of the world’s most influential artists. Not only for her critical role in the development of art over the past 7 decades, but also for her impact on popular culture. She was connected to, though not entirely part of, major art movements such as Minimalism, Pop and conceptual art, and has brought these forms and ideas into wide public consciousness. She has lived through some of the most important events of the 20th century, befriended some of its most influential artists, and was an Asian woman who held her own in very masculine arenas in Japan, Europe, and the USA.
Given Kusama’s importance, we feel strongly that her work should be more widely seen and understood in Southeast Asia, and this exhibition is the first opportunity in the region to see such a comprehensive range of works from across her entire practice.
Her work is often related to Surrealism. What is surrealism exactly?
Surrealism is a style of art that rejects rational thought and draws upon the logic and imagery of dreams and the unconscious. While Kusama was working within a surrealist mode in her very early work, along with a number of Japanese avant-garde artists of the 1940s and 1950s, I don’t think she is usually related to Surrealism. Kusama’s work since her move to the United States in the late 1950s took a very different direction. It has become distinctly her own, or what the artist calls “Kusama art”.
Given the state of her mental health, to what extent is her art voluntary? With the magnitude of her creative achievement, how much of it is derived from her illness?
Kusama is very much in control of her work and her career. What the exhibition tries to make clear is her extraordinary consistency and commitment to creativity. While she has credited her hallucinations and anxieties with providing the inspiration for her art, she has constantly pushed her work in new directions, participated in historically important exhibitions, and forged close connections with leading artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse and Joseph Cornell.
What do you want people to take back from this exhibition?
This exhibition was curated to emphasise all aspects of Kusama’s work. Rather than simply seeing her as the “dot lady”, we hope audiences will appreciate the visual impact and virtuosity of Kusama’s work, as well as the development of her style and motifs and her personal, artistic, and social influences. We also hope that visitors to the exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore will gain a deeper appreciation of her enormous importance as an artist, and that her works are not just beautiful, but also highly philosophical and politically acute.
What does she want people to learn from it?
Ultimately, Kusama’s philosophy is to live in harmony with the universe. This is expressed through her Infinity Net paintings (which she describes as a way of obliterating the ego so we can connect with our surroundings), as well as her mirror rooms, where we are reflected into infinite space. She prefers not define her own work, and encourages viewers to find their own response. Kusama’s experience of World War II in Japan, and her participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, has informed her hatred of violence, and she has often professed her desire to bring peace and share her infinite love for humankind through her work. By using a visual language that transcends borders, Kusama has been able to achieve her aim, reaching millions of people around the world.
Yayoi Kusama: Life is The Heart of a Rainbow will remain at the National Gallery until September the 3rd. Tickets are at $15 for Singaporeans/PRs and $25 for non-Singaporeans