Yayoi Kusama

Roslyn Oxley9 Sydney 11 April - 4 May 2002

The room is large, disorientating. There are visual ambiguities in lollipop colours all on a blindingly white ground. Vast balloon shapes add to the sense of displacement. After the visitor respectfully removes her shoes and surrounds herself with this space, it becomes even harder to define the nature of visual reality.

This is the world of Yayoi Kusama, whose Balloon Installation dominates the familiar white space. Because this space is so familiar the transformation into confusion and infinity is even more disturbing, but disturbance is one of Yayoi Kusama's guiding principles. She is the artist of visual obsession, of never ending repetition. Her art developed in part from her own visual hallucinations, which first appeared in her childhood, and she has a continuing relationship with what is most commonly called mental illness. This has not stopped her from being confidently described as Japan's greatest living artist.

This public profile is also a classic example of the way the international (New York based) art market can discover, lose and then recover talent. There are two pathways that can be followed in her career, there is the nature of fame and then there is the artist's oeuvre.

The fame thing is why her art is on view in Sydney, why we can both marvel at the Balloon Installation (and feel uneasy with it) and be intrigued by the obsessive patterns of the Infinity Nets and Infinity Dots.

She is one of the golden generation of Japanese artists, including Yoko Ono, who found their cultural awakening in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. They were the survivors of past poverty and cultural oppression who in that post-war golden era relished both their freedom and affluence. Yayoi Kusama's art, based on a celebration of her own obsessive perception and behaviour meant that she eased comfortably into the New York scene. In the world of Warhol she was an exotic. She was praised by Donald Judd and Dore Ashton, for the way her art could be defined as Pop, Minimalist and even Post-Minimalist. This was of modern Japan  neurosis with style. But she was always uncomfortable with the crude monetary equation of the art market. Her 1966 Venice Biennale installation, Narcissus Garden, was the subject of censorship when she tried to sell her 1500 mirrored balls to passers by for 1200 lire each.

When Yayoi Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 it was easy for New York to forget she had ever existed. But because she had been famous in New York, Japan did not forget her. In 1993 she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale, an exhibition which acted as an aide memoir for US curators.

From this Venice reminder came the 1998 Museum of Modern Art survey of her early art, as the US began to reconsider its own modernist history. From there came the recreation of her 1965 Infinity Room in the 2000 Biennale of Sydney and thence enough interest in her work to justify a commercial exhibition in Australia.
If that sounds too cynical, then bear in mind how hard it is to create audiences for art which is strange. Just as it is true that Sydney's welcoming of Yayoi Kusama's art happened (in part) because of her 2000 exhibition, so the apparently easy reception of some Australian artists in other countries has been eased by Biennales and art fairs.

None of this has anything to do with the actuality of the art  that strange feeling of displacement and alienation from humanity, while at the same time demonstrating sheer joy in the pure colours and shapes of the polka dots. To stand in this room is to remember that she once said: 'Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others.'

The reason for this obsession with the shape and form of infinity is reasonably well-known. Yayoi Kusama is still the emotionally bereft child looking for comfort in obsessive behaviour. As 'an unwanted child of unloving parents' she took refuge in hallucinations of infinite repetitive patterns. Although there is a soothing, mesmerising quality to the constant creation of endless repetitive patterns of dots, it would be folly to simply describe this work as art therapy. This artist is fully aware of the visual impact of images of her small body in apparently infinite spaces. She understands the contradiction of making a limited area look like the universe. Yayoi Kusama makes her engagement with explorations of the mind a way of challenging all perception - of everything. Everywhere.

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