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The woman hiding behind polka dots – Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern

An exhibition not to be missed. Tate Modern is running a retrospective for Yayoi Kusama till 5 June. This conceptual artist is one of the leading figures in New York avant-garde movement during 60s and 70s and probably the most well-known Japanese artist alive.

She loves repetition to extreme; it’s almost like obsessive compulsive. In 50s, she started to produce some large-scale canvases called Infinity Net paintings that are occupied by monochromatic dots. She described it as “without beginning, end, or center.” In fact she was already obsessed with dots when she was a child. The dots, the trademark of Yoyoi Kusama, are actually the hallucination she experienced. She translates her overwhelming hallucination into her paintings and sculptures. Besides polka dots, eyes and spermatozoa-like form have been used frequently as her key visual vocabulary.

Her artworks are full of sexual implication. In the Accumulation sculpture series, she covered everyday objects such as shoes, cupboard, chair with fabric stuffed phalli. Yes, fake penises. Again, she channels her anxiety of sex into her works.

In 60s, she started to make artworks surrounding the concept of self-obliteration. She once explained “by obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.” She would cover herself and many other different types of objects with polka dots. She also staged a lot of happenings in New York at that time, called Body Festival, in which she painted naked models with polka dots.

Among all her works shown in the exhibition, I find the complete room installation the most mesmerizing. Aggregation, her first complete room installation, features a fabric phallus-covered boat in the centre and repeating images of the boat all over the room. I’m Here, but Nothing, is a furnished room covered with fluorescent sticker spots. Kusama tried to create a hallucinatory experience for the visitors. It’s like living in her world and experiencing her illness. The last room, Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, explores the magical effect of infinity. In a room full of mirror and colour-changing LED lights, the viewer loses his or her sense of self and start to self-obliterate.

Self-obliteration seems to be a trendy obsession in contemporary art and fashion lately. For example, Liu Bolin is a Chinese artist who takes photograph of himself blending with the background. This artist has attracted the attention of fashion industry recently. He collaborated with Harper’s Bazaar and make designers like Alber Elbaz, Jean Paul Gaultier, Angela Missoni disappear into their signature designs.

© Harper's Bazaar
© Harper's Bazaar
© Harper's Bazaar

This photographic trick is spreading out in lookbook, presentation and editorials. Elle Canada uses similar concept to blend the floral dress with floral background in their September 2011 issue. Issac Mizrahi opened his spring/summer 2012 presentation with full pattern evening dress that shares the same pattern as the wall behind.

"Floral Fantasy" Elle Canada September 2011
Isaac Mizrahi Spring 2012 Ready-to-Wear
Isaac Mizrahi Spring 2012 Ready-to-Wear (from style.com)

The trend is spotted in music video too. Gotye, a Belgian-Australian musician merges himself with the mirror background in his Somebody That I Used To Know music video.

Isn’t it all of these just like what Kusama have been doing since 60s?

© Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
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