Standing on a carpet of dried pasta, six crayon-coloured mannequins stand mid-conversation at a dinner party - each covered in artist Yayoi Kusama’s infinity nets: her famed seemingly endless dotted patterns. A table laden with crockery and surrounded by chairs similarly receives the same vibrant treatment, a scene arranged altogether for the first time in decades at M+’s ‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’ retrospective in Hong Kong.
The meticulous portrait, titled Self Obliteration, speaks to the heart of Kusama’s hallucinogenic vision of the world, expressed by the Japanese artist over several decades. The polka-dotted faces of the mannequins disappear as they expand and contract endlessly beneath their styled wigs, sealed to the shape of identically shaped female bodies pinned to spotted stands.
The comprehensive exhibition is M+’s first-ever special exhibition in Hong Kong and one of the first major retrospectives on the artist in nearly a decade. From her early sketchbooks to pieces created by Kusama over the pandemic, signature works such as her 1992 work Shooting Stars and an array of miniature pumpkins take pride of place in the exhibition alongside paintings, videos and even costumes. In one room, curators took advantage of a sweeping view of Hong Kong harbour and set up the artist’s mercurial Cloud sculptures: their metallic sheen reflecting a blue sky and fluorescent museum lights.
New works were also commissioned for the opening, including two melting versions of her iconic pumpkins: a continued self-obliteration of a motif synonymous with the artist. Both the Instagram-minded and Kusama fans are set to flock to the artist’s brand new infinity room, Dots Obsession──Aspiring to Heaven's Love, a stark black and white space filled with gigantic polka-dotted balls which make the onlooker feel like an insignificant speck - leading into a mirrored room where polka dots seemingly stretch beyond the dimensions of time and space.
Chong joked at the press preview that some of her latest works - created this summer - were shipped the moment the paint dried. Speaking to Wallpaper* over email, Kusama said, ‘I do not feel the difference between my earlier creation and now. I never run out of ideas so I shall continue to show new things.’
‘I take in everything I’m interested in. I desire to create ever more original works,’ Kusama continued.
Curated by preeminent Kusama expert Mika Yoshitake and M+’s Doryun Chong, the entire exhibition is arranged chronologically - though not in the way you’d typically expect. Each section of the exhibition speaks to a different theme explored by Kusama throughout her oeuvre with titles such as Infinity, Accumulation, and Force of Life, with each area showing early thematically-relevant works and later revisitations.
Art has always been a method of healing for Kusama, who has spoken openly about her mental health and has chosen to live in a psychiatric facility in Japan. ‘I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. Painting helps me to keep away thoughts of death for myself. That is the power of art,’ she said.
While she was unable to travel to rigidly Covid-restricted Hong Kong over the course of the exhibition’s preparation, she spoke with the curators online while close-knit members of her studio served as consultants on her behalf. Suhanya Raffel, museum director at M+ told Wallpaper*, ‘There is a renewed relevance to her candour about mental illness during the post-pandemic period.’
‘Kusama embodies a fearless and indefatigable spirit, with a powerful conviction in art. Her expressions of universal love offer an inspiring message of healing that she has been propagating for decades,’ she continued.
Death is indeed another of the sections in the exhibition and one of its most thought-provoking. 'We arrived at the theme of "Death" from Kusama’s coming of age during the destruction and devastation of World War II and lifelong struggle with mental illness, which is pronounced in the 1970s', explains Mika Yoshitake, co-curator of ‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’.
Presiding over the room sits Death of a Nerve, a serpentine black and white sculpture which stands in contrast to Kusama’s rainbow works. Created in 1973 following Kusama’s departure from New York back to Japan, the fabric-stuffed sculpture speaks to the intense burnout the artist experienced at the time following years of prolific production - hanging lifelessly from hooks as its tentacles pool slumped on the ground. One gouache and ink piece titled Atomic Bomb hangs nearby, a haunting abstract portrait responding to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: an event which happened in her lifetime.
But all is not lost. Death leads into another room called Force of Life, a dizzying collection of paintings crammed onto walls. As Yoshitake continues, 'Force of Life was inspired by Kusama’s latest body of work, My Eternal Soul (2009-2021) comprising over 900 paintings, which she began at the age of 80. We have also included eleven paintings from her newest series, Every Day I Pray for Love (2021-present) as a testament to the enormous drive for life that she has through the act of painting daily'.
Colour fills every inch of the space in works such as Pound of Repose, a sunshine yellow painting filled with amoebic shapes - and the rosy hues of My Heart with Many Worries. The sheer breadth and volume of Kusama’s work speak to an innate desire to live through her work, in the hundreds of pieces she continues to create to this day.
As Suhanya Raffel, museum director at M+ said of the exhibition, ‘We want to tell the story of how an Asian woman, with an indomitable spirit, could push through all social, cultural, and personal obstacles, to build a consistent and visionary body of work and legacy.’
‘In recent years the world has become unpeaceful and full of turmoil,’ Kusama reflects. 'As an artist, I think it is important to share the love and peace and hope to deliver that to people who are suffering and do not have the opportunity to enjoy the joy of art and shall do my best to create art to leave the message of “love forever” to the young generations.’
'Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now', until 14 May 2023, M+ Museum, Hong Kong. mplus.org.hk
Kusama is also staging 'My Soul Blooms Forever', an outdoor exhibition in the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), Doha, Qatar, until 31 December to coincide with the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. mia.org.qa
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