Let’s begin at the end. In the last gallery of the Matsumoto City Museum of Art is a small, raised room where visitors are admitted one at a time. When the door slides open, a gangplank protruding over a darkened abyss becomes visible. Once the doorway closes, a whole a galaxy of dots reflects off mirrored surfaces in every direction. The lone viewer is suspended on a jetty overlooking the cosmos that stretches before them. It’s an experience that leaves little doubt as to Yayoi Kusama’s popularity, but visiting the artist’s hometown of Matsumoto sparked some unexpected questions about her work as well.
Probably the most well-worn idea surrounding Kusama’s oeuvre is the versatility of the artist’s signature motif – the polka dot. Although easily assimilated among various isms of art, the dot is merely one mark that she employs, among many. What quickly becomes apparent is the array of other motifs that Kusama saturates surfaces with – lines, blobs, flames, squiggles and zig-zags. The iterations of these forms alongside her dots are what have established her prolific, obsessive practice.
Something that the exhibition “The Place for My Soul” (2016) does well is to display such a wide range of works as to challenge the assumption that Kusama is so utterly devoted to producing art with a single, repetitive form that any other subjects are eclipsed by it. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the paintings on show embrace portraiture, with countless crinkled eyebrows floating on seas of noses, and mosaic-like canvases made from eyes.
Just how we perceive visual fields of repeated motifs informs how we understand Kusama’s work. By including several of the artist’s “Infinity Nets” on display, there are times when reading dots on a visual plane may be looking at things the wrong way round. Rather than focusing on dots-as-objects in a given space, Kusama seems to use the “Infinity Nets” as a way to map space instead. Making scores of curved lines to form a lattice, the artist leaves dozens of thumbnail-shaped negative spaces that are dot-like in appearance. With “Infinity Nets” the dots seem incidental to the cartography.
Another surprising response to experience, given the broad appeal of Kusama’s art, when viewing a sculpture of hers, is revulsion. Beneath a desolate, blood-red painting of dying plants titled “Lingering Dream” (1980) is a sculptural work placed directly onto the floor. It has a bodily feel to it, like oversized entrails snaking their way across the room, only these are sewn from a soft material, like readymades, perhaps polyester gloves, bulbous and blackened in parts, as though diseased.
This sculpture’s disgustingness is not to be brushed over. Being able to produce something that incites repulsion, that elicits such a distinct psychological response is not easy to achieve. A far cry from Kusama’s more popular works, that revel in abundance, it admits a darker, troubling dimension to consider.
With the exception of the “Infinity Mirrored Room”, where this exhibition disappoints is with some of the installations. Despite immersive environments seeming the ideal medium to appreciate Kusama’s artwork, the installations on show lacked the exploration of the paintings or the intimacy of the works on paper. “Atomic Bomb” (1954) is an early drawing on paper that wasn’t much larger than a postcard but managed to convey a compelling image with only pastel and pigment.
Across town, in Matsumoto Castle, there is a room built for the sole purpose of moon-gazing. So too, there is scope for contemplating the cosmos in Kusama’s universe, but not without peering past the spotty tentacles and the Triffid-like plants first.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto (1929). The artist lives and works in Tokyo.
The exhibition “The Place for My Soul” at Matsumoto City Museum of Art has now ended.
©Nick West 2017