Most of the time, I get the idea into my head that I’d like to see an exhibition, or a film, or a play, or whatever and then procrastinate so much that it closes. It was fortunate, then, that a trip to recover a lost mobile phone (which, serendipitously, was retrieved by someone who just happened to still be in the cab where the phone was when I phoned them, whose number I’d only got that evening; a whole passel of good coincidences) ended up being a trip to see the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern. I wanted to go, but almost inevitably would have ended up delaying all the way to the closing date in June.
For someone as prolific as Kusama, it would have never been possible to do anything except a highlights package, so to speak, and the exhibition succeeded admirably at that. For someone who’s probably best known for large-scale installations, they gave ample space to her small-scale work. It can be hard to ‘review’ an exhibition and separate the exhibition as an entity from the art being displayed. Certainly I’ve been to ones in the past where the layout was poorly considered, or there was a disappoitning selection, or there were other problems with the set-up that distracted from what you were looking at.
Not the case here. It was terribly crowded, but that’s to be expected.. Less expected was the sheer amount of children and babies being dragged around. Get a babysitter. Just because she’s the polka dot lady, don’t bring your children and expose them to thousands of stuffed phalluses and the disturbing hallucinatory full-room installations and collages of insects being birthed from ladies’ chests. I mean, maybe your kids are into that, but when they’re crawling on the floor wearing a Dora the Explorer jumper, there’s a bit of a mental disconnect there.
Volume of people aside, though, it was brilliantly put together. I guess a chronological approach isn’t the most adventurous, but it allowed you to follow her progression and see her taking new approaches, and then, ultmately, doubling back on herself and returning to motifs and techniques she’d used before.
Her early inks and watercolours are stunning. ‘Flower Bud’ really drew you into its depths and nearly gave you a sense of falling. Without wanting to sound too pseudy, some of them practically throbbed with menace. Some of them I couldn’t watch the video installation for long. Disturbing groaning noises with silent footage of a robed woman riding a horse, both of them covered in polka dots was all a bit too J-Horror for me. The ultraviolet living room was disturbing in the best way; an entire living room set up covered in neon polka dot stickers – the dots seemed to float in your vision. The theory that it’s Kusama’s way of representing hallucinations and visual distortions definitely seems to hold true. Unsurprisingly, the highlight was the new infinity room that Kusama set up specifically for the exhibition. A whole mirrored room with colour-changing lights hanging at different heights. Like the best of her work, it’s simultaneously beautiful and hugely disconcerting. This was where the crowds were really problematic, because you kind of have to keep moving and don’t really get to appreciate the room for what it is, but it’s still visually stunning.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy all the pieces. The accumulation pieces – shoes and bags and sofas and even a rowboat covered in stuffed cloth phalluses – seem kind of crude and obvious. But given that she started making them in 1950, I think you have to appreciate them for what they would have been at the time. And given that she produces so much, in so many different mediums, it’s perhaps inevitable that not everything will hit home for everybody.
The exhibition is absolutely worth seeing. Kusama’s made some amazing pieces. Because they’re full-room installations, they really have to be experienced to be properly appreciated, and seeing the progression of Kusama’s work (and thought processes) is fascinating.