Yayoi Kusama

Better late than never, some thoughts on the new Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate Modern...

I first encountered  Japanese artist Kusama’s gloriously wacky artwork in the Hayward’s group show Walking in My Mind back in 2009 and was instantly struck by its colourful eccentricity. But the Tate exhibition proves there’s much more to Kusama than the distinctive polka-dot installations for which she is best known.  Starting with her early works, the exhibition traces her artistic development chronologically through the 50s, 60s and 70s, following her from rural Japan to the heart of the New York art scene. The work here is incredibly varied, ranging from semi-abstract works on paper influenced by traditional Japanese artwork to trippy films of 1960s art ‘happenings’.  If one thing is clear from these early works, it’s how quick Kusama was to absorb contemporary influences, continually reinventing her work and finding new directions in response to other artists and their works.

Since 1977, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution in Japan, marking something of a turning point. From here onwards, her practice seems more consistent, and we encounter works that might seem more familiar – from her soft, sculptural forms to the dizzying polka-dotted domestic space, I’m Here But Nothing. This is work that is vibrant, unexpected and often very enjoyable, yet the final installation Infinity Room – a disorientating, darkened, mirrored space which we must pass through before leaving the gallery – makes it quite clear that Kusama’s work is about more than entertaining eccentricity and jaunty coloured spots. Ultimately, this is work which challenges our perceptions of mental illness, exploring the ways that art can begin represent the disturbing experiences of psychological trauma, neurosis and obsession.

Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern until 5 June.

[Image: Yayoi Kusama Kusama posing in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show 1963 installation view, Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York 1963 © Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.]