Saturday, February 18, 2012

Joining the Dots

Detail from Obliteration Room; photo by Val PhoenixEarlier in the week I ventured out to Tate Modern for the much-heralded Yayoi Kusama retrospective. Kusama was a name I'd heard but not really known much about, other than that she was name-checked in Le Tigre's "Hot Topic". Recently, Amanda Palmer blogged about Kusama's Obliteration Room on a visit to Brisbane, which piqued my curiosity and, lo and behold, the Obliteration Room also makes an appearance at the Tate. But you have to look for it, as it is not part of the main exhibit.

There is much to be found in Kusama's work. An octogenarian, she has worked in numerous genres, locales and time periods, from Op Art and Pop Art, 1960s hippy happenings in New York, art films and of course, the ubiquitous dots. Her early phallic sculptures occupy a couple of the early rooms. Then there is a series of rather flat, dark paintings, and then it gets more interesting, with photos and film of her performances on the streets of New York, including one outside the New York Stock Exchange. Occupy would love that. The last three rooms offer a delightful juxtaposition of dark and light, with room 13 exploding into glorious colour, showing that in the 1990s she was still moving in new directions, even if the captions offer a rather sobering preoccupation with an inability to find love.

As I entered the final room, a disorienting infinity chamber, the guard at the entrance barked, "Move along, please!", denying people the pleasure of lingering in its wonder. We then found ourselves dumped out in a concrete antechamber, unable to get back into the exhibit. So much for retracing my steps and visiting previous rooms, as I'd intended. A sorry end to the visit.

The biography of Kusama is not really apparent throughout the exhibit, but a tiny glimpse is found in the short film on view outside the entrance. In it, the artist, a vibrant woman with a startling cherry-red bob, is seen at work in her studio in Tokyo, across the road from the mental institution where she lives. It is never explained whether she actually has a mental illness, but she has lived there by choice since 1977. This nugget of information rather leaves questions hanging in the air.

One could make a case for spending a care-free hour in the Obliteration Room, tucked away on level one, and skipping the main exhibit altogether. After all, it is fun, immersive, colourful, and interactive, as well as context- and cost-free. It touches obliquely on the artist's themes, embracing dots, colour and repetition. When I visited, it was half term and numerous parents had brought their restless offspring for a day out. The kids loved it, climbing all over the furniture, stickering the adults and themselves, as well as all of the furnishings.

The bright colours of the stickers are irresistible, and I found myself standing on a chair stretching to put a sticker on the ceiling, enjoying the freedom to do what in any other context would be vandalism. This obliteration feels like nothing so much as an obliteration of normalcy, of filling in something that is blank. But it is called the Obliteration Room for a reason, giving voice to Kusama's fears and fascinations. Not really child's play, at all.

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