To immerse yourself in Yayoi Kusama’s art is to see the world through a radically different lens. This is a world where colours are vibrant and form is radically reinterpreted. With Kusama’s art, you’re not sure whether you’re witnessing our world but on a tilted axis, or whether you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.
Either way, Kusama’s art is a wonder – and a luminous, exciting one at that. And now Victoria Miro Galleries in London is giving audiences the opportunity to experience more of her works by dedicating both of their galleries to showcasing Kusama’s distinctive paintings and installations.
At the Gallery in Wharf Road, visitors can lie down in a room full of her knee-high vivid yellow pumpkins. Whereas the gallery in Mayfair is displaying some of Kusama’s more recent paintings, part of her My Eternal Soul series. These are vast canvases that capture and reflect Kusama’s almost instinctual approach to painting (“In front of paint brushes and canvas, my hands react to them and make my work before I think of anything. Then, when the piece is completed, I look at it, and am surprised by the result—always.”)
The colours and themes are unrelentingly emotive and emotional – see the bright yellows mix with burnt orange to create My Eternal Life, the psychedelic colours of her pumpkins, and The Heart That Flew To the Sky that has softly curved undefinable shapes of greens and pinks swimming in a delicate hue of lilac.
If this is Kusama’s subconscious expressing yourself, you could be forgiven for thinking her mind must be a happy place. But there’s a touch of the Van Gogh about Kusama as though this is an artist whose vision of the world seems to be one of glorious colour and pattern, in reality, Kusama’s mind is not a peaceful one. Constantly battling mental illness, she checked herself into a psychiatric ward in Japan forty years ago – and has lived there ever since.
But there are hints of those battles in some of Kusama’s pieces. Where the Lights in My Heart Go is a dark, confined space with a few holes punctured in the sides to allow in beams of light. The light can create pretty patterns in the box if there is enough light coming in. But on the day I visited, light was weak. Instead the box was a very gloomy, hollow space.
And there’s a certain bite to Kusama’s waterside garden installation in Wharf Road, which sees dozens of floating mirrored spheres almost overwhelm a tranquil pond. In the Venice Biennale in 1966 (where these spheres were first put on display) they were sold under a sign that read “Your Narcissism For Sale.” Buy the art so you can see your own glory reflected in it – Ouch! But what an observation.
But what I am in awe of most with Kusama’s work is her ability to change my perspective. Yes, her art can lift and inspire. But it can also challenge. Take for example, Chandelier of Grief, where grief is defined as infinite reflections of a dazzling chandelier. The impact of this is profound – to subvert grief from darkness of loss to light of memory and celebration. Yet, as well as the chandelier, the mirrored room also shows infinite reflections of you. There’s something almost claustrophobic about this grief – infinite and intimate.
In an interview a couple of years ago in The Telegraph, Kusama was asked what she wanted for her audience. “I want them to feel like art is wonderful,” she replied. I can’t imagine how, standing in her installations, or gazing in rapt adoration of her vast canvases, you could feel anything else.
Victoria Miro Galleries, London to July 30, 2016
All photos by me.