'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Thursday, 23 February 2012

“My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.”

So says Yayoi Kusama in her autobiography Infinity Net. It's an ambitious intent and a grand design for the humble dot. And yet the word that springs most readily to my mind when searching for a way to introduce the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate is... fun. But somehow 'fun' doesn't seem quite sufficient to describe the output of an octogenarian Japanese woman of startling biography whose work, apparently, the viewer ought to read through the lens of her life. A woman who, by her own account, endured an abusive relationship with her mother, experienced lifelong hallucinations and a tendency towards morbid obsession and in 1973, after a sixteen year period of prolific art making in New York that was plagued by bouts of depression and psychosis, returned to Japan and checked herself into the mental hospital where she has lived and worked ever since. Not a day goes by, she has said, when she doesn't think of suicide.

How curious then that my abiding memory of the show is of something light, convivial - not without seriousness - but absent of density. The two things don't seem to conflate. Contradictory then is how I shall characterise it.

What the work certainly does possess is a charmingly idiosyncratic sort of poetry. The early works expressing the biomorphic influence of Miro and the Surrealists. The extraordinary sculptural installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats - a life-sized phalli covered rowing boat that makes the painfully invisible humorously visible. Her 1967 film Kusama's Self-Obliteration that features exquisite imagery of the artist riding bareback on a dark horse through a mystical landscape, to the liquid, dissonant and distinctly spiritualised accompaniment of The Citizens for Interplanetary Activity. All are characterised by poetry and metaphor.

In the film, as in so much of the artist's output, the profound existential interconnectedness between woman and horse - between woman and universe if you'll excuse a lurch towards the grandiose - is alluded to visually by the egalitarian distribution of dots. It's as though the dots are representative of a time before individuation, before the words horse and river and tree and woman tore the mind, and thereby the world, into mutually antagonistic fragments; to a time before self and other, to a time of One. It's as though the dots cast a net that obliterates that which distinguishes me from you, she from it.

Delightful is the immersive domestic interior of I'm Here, but Nothing, in which everyday furniture and accessories are illuminated by a lilac glow and resultingly dappled with fluorescent dots. And, perhaps the pièce de résistance, the final Infinity Mirrored Room, in which mirrors and tiny dot shaped lights are used to extend the allusion to Oneness - the obliteration of the self – literally into infinity.

Kusama's exhibition feels to me to have a distinctly female voice. I don't want to patronise the work by calling it feminine, (whatever that might mean, I nod to you Ms Butler) but in some way that I struggle to put my finger on, it seems to engage archetypes that I can only describe as female. So I was unsurprised to read Waldemar Januszczak's inane tweet: 'Yayoi Kusama and Lucian Freud were born at the same time. So how come she produces spotty infantile drivel - and he was a genius?' Leaving aside the inherent idiocy of this rhetorical statement, what is being expressed is an inability to connect with Kusama's work that I would suggest might have something to do with gendered perspectives.

Rather like Niki de Saint Phalle, the work of Yayoi Kusama is perhaps that of a woman's woman. Which is not quite the same (if I may be so bold Mr Januszczak) as calling it infantile drivel. Perhaps what could be seen as infantile is more positively described as childlike in its directness, possessing something of what Picasso et all were striving towards when they investigated the art of children, 'primitives' and the insane. That is to say, work that is unencumbered by the tedious modern addiction to the illusion of control through rationalisation.

Perhaps this is where the Feminist context through which Kusama's work is sometimes read enters the frame. Like Pipilotti Rist's work, this exhibition feels to me like the output of a woman who is investigating reality through the medium of the body first, intellect second. This doesn't make the work less intelligent, far from it, rather it makes it less cerebral, more instinctually intelligent. As Picasso posited, 'every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.' Perhaps this is something to which Yayoi Kusama has come close with deceptively profound results.

written for Spoonfed

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