Installation view of YAYOI KUSAMA’s Dots Obsession, 2015, for “A Dream I Dreamed” at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

A Dream I Dreamed

Yayoi Kusama

Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts
Taiwan Japan

YAYOI KUSAMAI’m Here, but Nothing, 2015, vinyl stickers, ultraviolet fluorescent lights, furniture, household objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots have taken over the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (KMFA) in Taiwan, giving museumgoers an entertaining ride into the flamboyant Japanese artist’s vibrantly colorful dream world, through paintings, sculptures and immersive installations of massive flowers, pumpkins, infinite mirrors and kaleidoscopic dots. “A Dream I Dreamed” is the first major touring exhibition in Asia of Kusama’s voluminous oeuvre. Since making its debut in Daegu, South Korea, in 2013, the show has been mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai and the Seoul Arts Center. In June, it will make a second stop in Taiwan at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, before jetting off to the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi in November.

At the KMFA, installations by the self-proclaimed “Queen of Polka Dots” occupy several rooms spread across an entire floor, in additional to one other work in the ground floor lobby. The latter installation, entitled Dots Obsession (2015), is one of the only works in the exhibition that viewers are permitted to photograph. Comprised of colossal red-and-white, polka-dotted inflatable balls—some easily several meters tall—it is an attraction that appeals to smartphone-wielding visitors and their selfie-snapping desires. Dots Obsession, mounted at ground level and elevated at varying heights throughout the museum lobby, captures the essence of Kusama’s visual language, while laying the ground for the exhibition ahead.

On entering the exhibition, visitors plunge straight into the artist’s psychedelic world in I’m Here, but Nothing (2015). Modeled to look like a domestic living space, the room installation, which is lit with ultraviolet light and plastered with glowing, colored dots, leaves one disorientated and imagining what it would be like to sleep, eat and watch television surrounded by a sea of neon dots.

YAYOI KUSAMA, Infinity Mirrored Room-Love Forever, 1994, mirror, metal, electric bulb and wood, 240 × 210 × 205 cm. Courtesy Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

Continuing the kaleidoscopic journey that begins with I’m Here, but Nothing, visitors encounter the spellbinding experience of Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirrored Room – Brilliance of the Souls (2014) and Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever (1994). Her simple pairing of mirrors and luminescent globes yields a hypnotic sensory overload. While Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever allows one to only peek into an enclosed mirrored space, the 2014 version of the installlation is a stand-alone room that fully encloses the viewers.

While obsession is sometimes associated with danger and negative excess, it is a positive asset for Kusama’s pictorial works. Spanning four walls in the exhibition space are 50 silkscreens from the artist’s “Love Forever” series, which were originally produced with marker pens between 2004 and 2007. The monochromatic drawings are meticulously detailed, with repetitive motifs—including eyes, butterflies, lips, wavy lines and polka dots—that divulge the artist’s inner thoughts onto a visual plane.

In 1957, at the age of 28, Kusama boldly emigrated to the United States from Japan, living for a short time in Seattle before settling in New York City. During this period in the Big Apple, her paintings transformed radically. These New York works—which pushed Kusama into the art world spotlight in 1959, when Donald Judd publicly compared her works to that of American abstract expressionism—were the beginnings of what have come to be known as her “Infinity Net” paintings. At the KFMA, nine “Infinity Net” paintings are on display, together with paintings from the “Infinity Dots” series and other individual works, such as the four-panel painting Transmigration (2011). Across 18 paintings, a seemingly endless parade of dots, usually of a singular color on contrasting backgrounds, conveys the artist’s mental and artistic stamina.

YAYOI KUSAMANarcissus Garden, 1966/2015, 1,500 stainless-steel spheres, d: 30 cm each. Courtesy Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

Continuing Kusama’s affection for dots and repetition, The Moment of Regeneration (2004) highlights another recurring motif for the artist: the phallus. It comprises a series of red and black phallic protrusions reminiscent of octopus tentacles—a symbol associated with sex and eroticism in ancient Japanese art and literature—which are shown alongside her “Infinity Net” paintings, keeping viewers fixed on Kusama’s neurotic imagination.

Off to one side, the reflective silver balls of Narcissus Garden (1966/2015), perched on the floor against a glass window overlooking the museum’s gardens below, draws attention to an additional mass of identical silver balls lying quietly among the flowers outside. Originally conceived for the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966, Narcissus Garden became a point of controversy when Kusama attempted to sell the installation’s balls individually for 1,200 lira each—approximately USD 2 at the time—to visitors. Yet the sale was prohibited by biennale organizers at that time. The mirrored surfaces of the balls strike a superficially aesthetic attraction while silently reminding viewers of their own innate narcissism.

From the psychedelic adult world, visitors return to a playful, childlike imaginary realm with Kusama’s new work, With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever (2013). Created specifically for this traveling exhibition, the installation draws visitors into a stark, white room containing three, giant white-potted tulips standing at nearly ceiling height. From floor to ceiling, the room and everything in it are consumed by large, multi-colored dots of red, blue, green, pink and yellow, orange and purple.

Kusama suffered emotional trauma in her childhood, which resulted in hallucinations and mental instability. From a young age, painting served as a salvation for the artist and a means of escape from the toil of reality. “A Dream I Dreamed” transforms the KMFA into an imaginary playground of polka dots, mirrors and colors. It is a visually arresting roundup of works from Kusama’s vast oeuvre that harnesses the phantasmagoric world of an artist whose imagination captures the hearts of so many.

YAYOI KUSAMAAll My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever, 2013, metal, fiberglass reinforced plastic, urethane paint and stickers, dimensions variable. Courtesy Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

“A Dream I Dreamed” is on view at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts until May 17, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.