Yayoi Kusama: beyond the infinity room

• Yayoi Kusama’s dazzling “Infinity Mirrored Room” at Tate Modern recalls Japan’s Gutai group and three glittering installations by Tatsuo Miyajima, Chu Yun and Cildo Meireles.


According to the Two Things game, there are only two things you really need to know about every subject, but I reckon there are three. So, if weighing up whether to visit to Yayoi Kusama’s popular Tate retrospective or not, the trio of facts to consider are: 1) until 27 May you can also catch a survey of the fascinating Alighiero Boetti; 2) it’s worth the admission price alone for Kusama’s perception-bending installation, “Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life” (above); and 3) go early if you want to appreciate it in peace. A dark mirrored maze strung with tiny pulsating bulbs of ever-changing hue, this bedazzling chamber confuses one’s sense of space with endlessly receding fairy-light multiverses, creating a hypnotic effect that belies its simple fairground mechanics. The room is teeming, yet transfixing: you just want to stand there becalmed, and be calmed. But meditation is impossible, because as the video clip above demonstrates, a stream of noisy viewers flows incessantly through, constantly buffeting you – as the artist probably intended – with the “life” aspect of the title, though I’m not convinced all of it’s brilliant.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever, 1994, installation view at Victoria Miro, 2008

Kusama has made many works in this vein, using mirrors, lights and space in inventive ways – Victoria Miro has been showing striking examples since 1999, and is currently hosting an installation of the artist’s less-compelling paintings, if you prefer your Yayoi with fewer punters. London’s Serpentine Gallery was also an early adopter, holding the UK’s first-ever Kusama survey in January 2000, when the Japanese artist – born in 1929 – was a mere youth of 72. I still remember the impact that show had on me: I visited expecting the dotty progress of an obsessive-compulsive madwoman, but emerged convinced that art and OCD can mix well (and often do, I reckon), having been utterly drawn into her all-enveloping textural world. Maybe it’s a first-time effect, because though the current Tate show is expansive, I remembered the Serpentine experience as being more overwhelming. Tracking down the few photos of it on the web (the internet’s riches decline in quality pre-2005), I realised this was a false memory: for though I’d become so immersed in the Serpentine survey that it’s stuck in my mind to this day, their display was far sparser than the Tate’s. And yet, as they admit at the start of the show, even the Tate extravaganza only manages to cover certain pivotal aspects of her vast archive.

Yayoi Kusama, A Snake, 1974, installation view at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2000

One question the Tate glosses over is that of “outsider” versus what I suppose must be called “insider” art. Haunted by hallucinations since childhood, and suffering a major breakdown in New York in the early 1970s, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a Japanese mental health hospital ever since, and works in a studio nearby. Self-medication is a major driver of her work – she has said it saved her from suicide – yet within Kusama’s spotty fecundity are developing themes and an engagement with the real world that the pathologically inward-focused repetition of “outsider” and “theraputic” art lacks, compelling though such visions can be. Classic outsider art was championed as Art Brut by Jean Dubuffet, who viewed it as the product of artists working in their “raw” state, not knowingly responding to academic theory or cultural influences. It’s that sense of knowingness which separates, for instance, Paul Noble’s blokey Nobson Newtown from Henry Darger’s schoolgirl universe, or George Shaw’s dark Humbrol suburbs from Alfred Wallis’s childlike crayon ships, or a thousand polite Sunday painters from the occasionally riveting daubs of art therapy.

Yayoi Kusama with her work Dots Obsession at the Serpentine Gallery, 2000

It would make a neat bit of art-speak to suggest that Kusama patrols the borders between these two states, but that’s not strictly true. As her early surrealist paintings show, she has always operated knowingly within art world territory, her feel for the zeitgeist taking her to New York in 1957, where she launched herself so early into the trendy art genres of that era – installation, film, happenings – that the Tate suggests she influenced Andy Warhol’s famous cow wallpaper. Far from being the ascent of an idiot savant, this was the career path of a savvy, formally-trained artist, and one who did not emerge from an art-historical vacuum. The Japanese avant-garde of the 1950s has not been much feted in the west, but ideas we often think of as crystallising in 1960s America and Europe – performance, environments, arte povera – were already being explored by the Gutai group in 1950s Japan, as described in Ericka Schiche’s informative essay on Kusama’s relationship to the Japanese art scene. Western ignorance of their achievements can probably be ascribed to a checklist including World War II, protectionism, and straightforward prejudice, though Beatlemaniac antipathy towards one of Gutai’s alumni, Yoko Ono, probably didn’t help much either. I look forward to the day some pioneering gallery mounts a proper Gutai survey in the UK, perhaps based on the revelatory reconstructions – all originally dating from at least a decade earlier than you would have guessed – curated by Mattijs Visser and Daniel Birnbaum in “Making Worlds” at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Gutai group installation at Making Worlds, Venice Biennale 2009, which showed a selection of work dating mainly from the 1950s

In fact Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room” at Tate reminds me of 2009 and Gutai in more ways than one, recalling three other transfixing installations I saw twinkling repetitively in darkness that year. Though not directly influenced by one another, all were by non-western artists and owed a clear debt to the elegant time-based electronic constructions of On Kawara (Japanese, b. 1933) and Nam June Paik (Korean, 1932-2006), neither of whom were ignorant of the Gutai group or the Zen concepts that informed them. In “The Shock of the New”, Robert Hughes describes the energy underlying Mondrian’s vision of New York as “quotidian chaos” – a catchily accurate phrase that applies equally well to today’s networked 24-hour world, and an idea that’s expounded magnificently in all three of these works. Like disco globes or mirrored amulets, each one envelops its surroundings in a glittering stillness that bewitches the gaze, reducing the world’s unknowable randomness to points of friendly electricity, the comfort of firelight in a cave. So, to end with another Three Things game, this trio of contemplative installations are:

1) Tatsuo Miyajima (Japanese, b. 1957), “Spirits in the Water with Cuban Artists”, 2009.

Tatsuo Miyajima, Spirits of the Water with Cuban Artists, at Ad-Infinitum, Palazzo Fortuny, 2009.

It doesn’t translate well into photography, but this depicts a shallow pool filled with a multicoloured network of Tatsuo Miyajima’s trademark LEDs counting endlessly from 1 to 99 at different speeds. Part of the artist’s ongoing “Time in Water” series, it was shown in Palazzo Fortuny’s atmospheric group show “In-Finitum”, held during the 2009 Venice Biennale. The LEDs were set to count down in time to the heartbeats of around 300 Cuban artists, all of whom helped rebuild their country – like Venice, an island – after the destruction of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. An unusually harmonious meeting of water and electricity, this serial music-like visualisation of phasing repetition was spiritually as well as optically reflective, and seemed to still the time it was racing through.
• Websites: www.tatsuomiyajima.com / www.lissongallery.com

2) Chu Yun (Chinese, b. 1977), “Constellation No. 3”, 2009.

Chu Yun, Constellation No. 3, Venice Biennale 2009.

Also at Venice in 2009, this inhabited its own pitch black corner of the Arsenale, a glimmering constellation which on closer inspection turned out to be the standby lights of a shop’s-worth of variegated household appliances, designed to wink wakefully while their owners sleep. Chu Yun’s wider work is quite disparate, mixing personal references with comments on the structural organisation of society and the transience of life. His oeuvre includes an archive of 6000 photos of his tiny apartment and arrangements of worn soap left over from washing his friends’ bodies, but he’s most famous for the 2006 installation at New York’s New Museum, “This is xx”, in which he paid young women to sleep sedated in bed as temporary human “artworks” amidst the milling throng of gallery-gawpers.
• Websites:  www.chuyun.net / www.vitamincreativespace.com

3) Cildo Meireles (Brazilian, b. 1948), “Babel”, 2001.

Cildo Meireles, Babel, 2001, pictured at the Museum of Vale do Rio Doce, Espírito Santo, Brazil.

Returning to Tate Modern, this was part of the Cildo Meireles retrospective held there in 2009, although it’s pictured here in Brazil. Meireles’ work is sociable and diverse, but he often masses large accumulations of similar items, here creating a room-height stack of radios dating from the 1920s to today. Arranged by size and age, from carved wooden valve cabinets at the bottom to plasticky moulded trannies at the top, each was switched to a different channel and set to its lowest audible volume. The result was a twinkling tower of quietly babbling babel, which rather than the chaotic cacophony a different presentation could have evoked, suggested a friendly, generous presence – all those purposeful voices, all that creativity, and all free for any interested party to argue with or enjoy. A lot like art, in other words.
• Websites: www.galerielelong.com / www.galerialuisastrina.com.br / www.arevalogallery.com

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