The Yayoi Kusama Retrospective at the Victoria Miro Gallery on Wharf Road, London
If I say dots, pumpkins, nets, Louis Vuitton collaboration, Japanese; I hope you reach the very obvious conclusion I’m aiming at.
Born in 1929, the 87 year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has been producing iconic and thought-provoking works for more than six generations. Having exhibited her work in both galleries and museums around the world for decades – her last UK retrospective was at Tate Modern in 2012 - there seems to be no sign that Kusama has any intention of slowing down. She is, in fact, more prolific than ever before. Universally-regarded as one of the world’s most popular artists, Kusama’s latest body of work - featuring recurring motifs like dots, pumpkins, infinity nets and juxtaposing colours - is on display in both the East and West End branches of Victoria Miro Gallery.
While Kusama’s exhibitions have always attracted hoards of people desperate to glimpse her iconic pumpkins – the sentimental and comforting value of the kabocha squashes for Kusama dates back to her early childhood when her family ran plant seed nurseries in Japan – her newest exhibition is a whole new ball game. Blissfully unaware of her current exhibition’s popularity, I headed to the Wharf Road site on a Tuesday morning at 11am. Pushed for time as always, I was hoping to pop in and out and have done my research by lunchtime. I soon realised this was not going to happen. The queue to enter the gallery was snaking round the corner and inside was bursting at the seams. Whilst I waited patiently - cursing to myself for not having been forewarned - I hit Instagram and typed the obvious - #YayoiKusama and #InstaKusama. That’s when the penny dropped.
Yayoi Kusama is an Instagram sensation, not only because her works are wildly Instagram-able but also because everyone, whether they are familiar with her work or not, wants to take selfies proving they have been to the show everyone else is going to. A vicious cycle of 'FOMO' if you ask me. The number of selfies taken in the now commonly referred to Pumpkin Mirror Room, 2016 (officially entitled ‘All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins) which was crafted specifically for this exhibition begs belief. Despite her talent and individuality, Kusama is now part of a wave of brands, galleries, shops or whatever else it may be that attract an audience because they are on trend and the yes-of-course-I-have-seen-the-infinity-rooms kind of cultural superiority.
The mirrored installations - one based in Victoria Miro's garden and one in the upstairs gallery space - are the exhibition’s main attractions. Although after a staggering 45 minutes of queuing for the pumpkin room for a mere 25 seconds inside, I wondered upon entering if it was going to be worth it. But they can quite simply described as mesmerising. Although the extent of their awesomeness (for lack of a more apt word) was somewhat lost on me, because of the omnipotent, omnipresent smart phone.
My one chance at experiencing the majesty of the pumpkin room was somewhat marred by the actions of the girl shared my session. Whilst I desperately tried to appreciate the ad infinitum perspective, she was desperately trying to snap a selfie at the right angle. Each of the 25 seconds was spent looking at the installation through her screen. By the time I had regained my composure and stopped watching her looking at her phone, the door opened and it was time to exit. In total disbelief, I asked the gallery assistant on the way out if it was always like this. She laughed and said, "you have come at a good time!"
I fear that the beauty and poignancy of Kusama’s work, whether it be the 3 bronze pumpkin sculptures, the series of Infinity-Net paintings, the tranquil garden or the mirrored installations is sadly lost on the crowds of people wandering about the gallery taking selfies. Not only is it difficult to appreciate the visual insanity of her work, but it is also difficult to loose yourself in the deeper significance of her art. Constant distraction prevents you from fully grasping whether this new series is linked to her psychedelic hallucinations, fears, thoughts of a dark unknown – Kusama has voluntarily lived in a mental hospital opposite her studio since the 1980's – or not at all?
Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no doubt that the success of the exhibition is partly due to social media and our contemporary obsession to share everything with everyone. But who can slam social media when the gallery seems to be constantly at full capacity – a normally insurmountable challenge in today’s digital world. Whether people go because they want to see Kusama’s art or go because they want to be seen there, they do at least go to the exhibition. Whichever camp you are in, Kusama’s work has a metaphysical depth to it that is beyond intriguing. Brave the crowds and see for yourself.
The Yayoi Kusama exhibition at both Victoria Miro Mayfair and Victoria Miro Wharf Road runs until 30th July 2016.
Written by Lucy Scovell, Fine Art Editor of Arteviste.com