The Tate Modern’s latest exhibition is arranged so that you can progress through the decades of Yayoi Kusama’s life, which have taken her from rural Japan to the New York art scene to contemporary Tokyo, in a career in which she has continuously re-invented her style.
Her art encompasses an astonishing variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance and installations. It ranges from works on paper featuring intense semi-abstract imagery, to soft sculpture known as “Accumulations”, to her “Infinity Net” paintings, made up of carefully repeated arcs of paint built up into large patterns.
Since 1977 Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution, and much of her work has been marked with obsessiveness and a desire to escape from psychological trauma. In an attempt to share her experiences, she creates installations that immerse the viewer in her obsessively charged vision of endless dots and nets or infinitely mirrored space.
It seems to me that the least interesting of Kusama’s past lives was the obligatory ‘Gone-mad-and-done-too-many-drugs’ part in New York in the 60s. The Warhol factor made too much art banal and obvious. The most exciting parts – namely her earliest paintings and the latest installations – share a common root of her family’s background in seed production, which clearly gave her a fascination with macro and microbiology.
Although bigger doesn’t mean better, the last part of the exhibition comes as the biggest surprise. These were taken on my phone inside one installation specially created for the Tate, a star field of lights and mirrors that was immersive and disorienting. (Although I found the darkened dining room filled with black light polka dots equally tricky, and managed to trip over the carpet) They suggest a state of mind that is present from the earliest paintings, yet always growing outward. In this sense Kusama has grown from the study of atoms to the birth of universes.