YAYOI KUSAMA, Narcissus Garden, 2017 1,500 stainless steel balls, dimensions variable. Installation view from the exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow” at National Gallery Singapore, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Life is the Heart of a Rainbow

Yayoi Kusama

Singapore Japan
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

What is the difference between a circle and a dot? According to Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, circles are flat, but the “moon, stars and people . . . are made of dots. They are infinity.” At 88, the doyenne of madness and polka dots grows only more popular with age, and ever more enmeshed in her recurring motifs of dots, nets, phalluses and cartoonish pumpkins—obsessions inspired by decades of mental illness. “Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow,” at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), is the first extensive survey in Southeast Asia of Kusama’s 65-year career, presented in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. This articulate sampling of the artist’s relentless fetishes—endless dots and aggregations— included paintings, installations, videos, and sculptures from the 1950s to the present.

Sustaining Kusama’s work is the cult of her backstory. Defying expectations of her well-to-do family, she left Japan to practice art in the United States in 1957. Beset by illness, in 1977 she took up permanent residence in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital where, as painter, sculptor and novelist, she still continues the exploration—and shrewd exploitation—of her vaunted hallucinations and compulsions. The self-described heretic of the art world flirts with inflections of minimalism, Pop and Op art to generate her idiosyncratic “psychosomatic art,” which NGS introduced via early paintings on paper, with their uneven combinations of ink, crayon, gouache and pastel.

Self-Portrait (1952) flaunts a prescient, vaginalike eye, which is an enduring fixture in Kusama’s cosmos. The Sea (1958) involves lush, gestural dots in subtleties of tone and depth—a marked contrast to later dot-imagery, notable for its glib uniformity. Glimpsed within these small, moody paintings are seeds of Kusama’s renowned “Infinity Net” paintings, which she has developed since the late 1950s. Several distinct examples of these included the lacy impasto No. A (1959), and the four-panel Transmigration (2011), which swarms with spots of retina-searing neon. Others resembled obverse dot portraits, beautiful hand-blocked textiles, or marbleized paper. Technically astute and undeniably compelling, these “Infinity Net” paintings presage Kusama’s annihilating “Infinity Rooms” (1965– ), which are mirrored spaces that impose her concept of cathartic “self-obliteration,” or “returning to the infinite universe.” NGS featured the trippy The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens (2017) and Infinity Mirrored Room Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008), where one communes with fathomless self-reflections within a universe of starry lights.

Kusama originally conceived her black-onwhite silkscreen series “Love Forever” (2004–07) as black-marker drawings. These 50 large, baroque works are scrawled with flowers, eyes and delicate cellular landscapes, effectively coalescing years of entropic dots and obsessive imagery into tenuous poetry. These were soundly eclipsed by Kusama’s inexhaustible series, “My Eternal Soul” (2009– ), which to date comprises some 500 paintings. Two dozen of these hysterically decorative square canvases—each nearly two meters wide— galvanized a single room at NGS with their riotous colors and derivative aboriginal patterns. Though burdened with angsty titles such as The Urge to Die Comes on a Daily Basis. Hoping That You Come Across My Death (2015), their sheer exuberance startles, then amuses. This serendipitous delight glimmers throughout Kusama’s concoctions, even in early avant-garde provocations like Desire for Death (1975–76), a droll installation of spatulas and plump stuffed-fabric phalluses; and Phallic Girl (1967), a silvered mannequin swathed in suggestive protrusions like a groovy Artemis of Ephesus. My Bleeding Heart and Women’s Castle (both 1994) are two extraordinary sculptural wall-works composed of cheerful polka-dotted phalluses and fluorescent lights that literally bristle with erotic wit.

Kusama’s eccentric, intensely prolific practice is driven as much by the muse of her personal demons as by zealous self-promotion. “Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow” included Narcissus Garden (2017), a reboot of an installation that Kusama brazenly presented at the 33rd Venice Biennale— despite not being invited. Exactly 1,500 stainless steel balls languished on the floor at NGS, reflecting stolid wood paneling, marble pillars—and enthusiastic visitor selfies. Kusama’s spheres, true to their audacious intent, ultimately reflect the infinite and facile charm of pop aesthetics.

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