M+ celebrates its first anniversary with a monumental scholarly showcase. Co-curators Doryun Chong and Mika Yoshitake take Prestige behind the scenes. Step into Yayoi Kusama’s cosmos, where the truest form of self can be understood with no restraint.
These two words, spoken or written, once registered, instantly flood the brain with images of the distinctive pattern. Once acknowledged, it’s impossible to stop the round circles scattered against a homogenous background from filling up the blank screen of the conscious mind.
Few motifs carry as much cultural significance as the polka dot, which developed in Europe in the 1840s-’60s – the name derives from polka music – and later swept early 20th-century America, appearing on everything from garments and bed sheets to homewares. Minnie Mouse first donned her signature polka dot dress in 1928, while Sinatra serenaded the world with Polka Dots and Moonbeams.
This globally recognisable pattern has also been transformed by one artist into a language through which she communicates her ethos with the world. Indeed, her signature style is so familiar, the name Yayoi Kusama, prolific Japanese contemporary visionary, is invariably flashing in your mind.
Her pumpkins, sculptural or featured on canvas, and infinity net paintings – not to mention her notoriously photogenic mirror rooms – are so representative of contemporary art that a quick Google search of the two words results in two Kusama pieces in the top six images. One of them features the artist, with her famous red bob, wearing a yellow and black polka dot dress that matches her pumpkin installation in the background.
Given the extent of her fame, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong’s M+ has taken up the challenge of organising an extensive retrospective of Kusama’s work to celebrate its first birthday. Her influence and prominence, which are are matched only by those of Warhol and Rothko, has already been thoroughly studied by the art establishment. Her first solo show in Japan was in 1952, which was followed five years later by an exhibition in the US, at Seattle’s Dusanne Gallery. A glance through her own studio website confirms that aside from the ’70s, a quiet period in her career, her work constantly has been in the public eye. 1999 alone saw 13 solo shows, in locations as diverse as Tokyo and New York, Taipei and Los Angeles. Currently, there are almost 30 places around the world where Kusama’s creations, big and small, can be viewed.
The main question concerning the M+ exhibition Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now is whether it will shed new light on Kusama and her oeuvre. This is important, as opinions on her significance are splintering. While her fame is well established, she’s been denounced as overhyped and overrated; writing in The Guardian in 2018, Jonathan Jones called Kusama “as artistic as a lava lamp” and her works “as fun as a fizzy drink and about as nourishing”. Such polarisation simply fuels curiosity about the M+ show which, with more than 200 pieces on display – including three never seen before – is one of her biggest ever.
Fortunately, to put Kusama and her work in perspective, M+ chief curator and curatorial deputy director Doryun Chong and Mika Yoshitake, an independent curator and an expert on post-war Japanese art, are on hand to talk us through the exhibition.
“It’s not all about the polka dots,” is how Chong begins. “Kusama is a cultural icon. Her omnipresence is a double-edged sword – everyone, informed or not, recognises her art works, but that also means she’s easily limited to the superficial impression of being the lady with red hair who paints polka dots and wears polka dots, and sometimes makes cute pumpkins with polka dots. But she’s so much more than that – and that’s what 1945 to Now is here to show.”
“When Doryun approached me to co-curate this exhibition,” Yoshitake says, “I knew how important it was to present Kusama in Hong Kong and at M+. I’m thrilled about M+’s position as a new model for museums to play a part in rethinking art history. The perception of Kusama as a global icon is relatively shallow – there’s a real need to do a scholarly show.”
As to how the M+ showcase can offer a different experience to visitors, Chong provides a thorough insight into their curatorial considerations. “We were very mindful of our position. Yes, she’s had a number of retrospective shows that cover her career, but let’s not forget that, at 93 years old, she’s still producing and has a career that spans seven and a half decades. The last extensive retrospective before ours was 10 years ago, organised by Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Now is a good time to refresh and update the dialogue. What we’ve curated is also, I believe, the first full-scale scholarly investigation into the artist outside of Japan within Asia.”
The exhibition is designed to be a fully comprehensive examination of Kusama’s life and career. “The dominant narrative of Kusama as an artist tends to focus on the 15 crucial New York years – from 1958 to 1973,” says Chong. “She returned to Japan at the age of 44. If you do the maths, she wasn’t even at the halfway point in her career at the time. Since her move back to Tokyo until now, it’s been almost 50 years, and she’s been creating art relentlessly through this time, even when she struggled deeply, in more ways than one, from the ’70s and into the ’80s. The global icon we know today is born through the world’s rediscovery of her closer to the ’90s. The ups and downs of her career within Japan and Asia is something we want to stage, to illustrate the different phases of Kusama’s practice, the continuity and evolution of her art.”
“What’s amazing about Kusama’s work is that it’s endless,” says Yoshitake. “So much study has been done on her but there’s a lack of in-depth examinations on why she does what she does and what her vision and philosophy are, which is why it’s been very interesting to present this show through our thematic approach.”
Chong explains there are six themes to the show: Infinity, Accumulation, Radical Connectivity, Biocosmic, Death and Force of Life. “The first two are obvious; Infinity refers to Kusama’s breakthrough body of work of infinity net paintings, while Accumulation cites her soft sculptures. We’re calling them themes rather than series to highlight the ideas of infinity and accumulation that extend beyond her artworks from the ’50s and ’60s and are woven in the fabric of Kusama’s philosophies.
“We continue with Radical Connectivity,” Chong adds. “This is not drawn from the artist’s work but is rather our curatorial interpretive term to closely inspect Kusama’s unique and, actually, really profound understanding of life. We use the word radical because Kusama truly believes all of humanity and the universe are interconnected, intertwined and completely inseparable. She uses the term “self-obliteration”, one that sounds ominous but is in fact something radically forward looking and optimistic – the idea that through obliteration, you erase the boundary between self and everything else to become one with humanity and the universe.”
“Biocosmic is special to Doryun and I,” says Yoshitake. “It’s a neologism we came up with to suggest Kusama always connects biologically, at cellular and molecular levels, with the cosmic galaxy. When you study her motifs, you experience this very kinetic, undulating current. Her signature body of work, the infinity net paintings, are inspired by a flight she took over the Pacific Ocean.
“This is where I began to think a lot about her childhood, growing up under a totalitarian Japanese government. It was common to question realism within the art world during the war, and nature was something artists examined to reassess their existence. Kusama was the same, her early works in her notebooks, which you’ll see in the exhibition, depict her observation of plants, even the decay. There’s such a conscientiousness over the life cycle, of life and death.
“The drawings she did in the ’50s were very microcosmic; they look like amoebas and seeds, or even light and stars. They capture these fleeting moments through Kusama’s integration of the realms of earthly and celestial. Once I realised this, I see the theme reoccurring over and over again – in her ’50s works, but also in her pieces created in the ’70s and ’90s, through her collages and psychosexual soft sculptures.”
Of the last section showcasing Death and Force of Life, Chong explains they represent Kusama’s consistent openness and honesty when it comes to discussing her struggles with mental health and fascination with death. “In her time, mental health was a taboo topic, especially in Asian cultures,” he says. “Kusama breaks convention and has been fully transparent about it for decades. We want to highlight how she always connects her struggles with the therapeutic power of art making. That is why she obsessively makes art; it’s her force of life. Her view on death isn’t tainted with darkness or pessimism, but rather an affiliation to the idea of regeneration. It’s about the cycle and renewal of life. We want to showcase that Kusama’s expansive understandings of the world, the universe and life itself are very humanistic, very universalist yet undeniably idiosyncratic.”
Chong and Yoshitake talk repeatedly about how visitors will see the continuation but also the evolution of Kusama’s work in this exhibition. The three new pieces, commissioned by M+, echo the sentiment. The star of the show, Death of Nerves (2022) is a massive installation that serves as an “update” to Kusama’s historically significant soft sculptural piece painstakingly hand-made by the artist herself in 1976. The monochromatic palette of the original transforms into an array of Technicolor hues that cascade in the three-storey vertical space at M+, signifying Kusama’s rebirth in contrast to her frail state when she created the original. The palette mirrors the colours used in some of her most recent paintings on display at M+. Dots Obsession – Aspiring to Heaven’s Love (2022) is a fresh take on her infinity mirror rooms made famous on social media, while Pumpkin (2022) sees her signature symmetrical gourds grown in new and more “alive” forms.
Complementing the exhibition is a richly illustrated 400-page publication, edited by Chong, Yoshitake and their team, and replete with essays, thematic texts, a visual chronology of Kusama’s life, a discussion between leading experts, a selection of poetry, manifestos, past interviews and, most excitingly, previously unpublished writings by the artist. “I can’t believe the book is so long,” Yoshitake says with a laugh. “I remember saying we should have this and add that, and this too, and this, and this, and this…”
An extensive series of public programmes is also available throughout the exhibition period, including talks, family-friendly activities and special screenings. “One thing that makes M+ remarkable is it has a full-fledged art house cinema,” says Chong. “Our three cinemas will be screening the well-known documentary titled Kusama Infinity, as well as a series of films from the 1960s showcasing radical performances by a group of women artists in New York. Another one to note looks at the 1980s context when Kusama was becoming active again, and the kind of work she and her cohorts were doing at the time. There’ll also be abstract animations inspired by Kusama’s well-known patterns – polka dots, infinity nets and accumulation sculptures.”
Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now is showing at M+ from November 12 until May 14