yayoi kusama: obsession, alienation and polka dots

Never underestimate the emotive power of the polka dot. No really. I wouldn’t have believed it either. But it’s true.

Today I visited the work of Yayoi Kusama at the Goma, an artist I’ve never really heard of before (although I think I’ve seen photos of her work around). It was pretty cool stuff, pretty trippy. And it had polka dots. Two works in particular stuck in mind, Dots Obsession 2011 and Flowers that Bloom at Midnight.

Dots Obsession 2011

It’s amazing what you can do to a place with just a few mirrors, some oversized bulbous objects, lots of red, and polka dots. Those 4 elements make up Dots Obsession and with them Kusama transforms a small room into an hallucinatory sensory explosion. She uses the mirrors to infinitise the repetition of organic forms and dots, and this illusion contrasted by the in fact claustrophobic dimensions of the room, heightened by the inflatable blobs, clash to create an overwhelming intrusion of space. The red helps, of course. Kusama uses colour and form well to bring the reality of the space you’re in to bear powerfully on your senses. It’s fun and loud but also oppressive and dislocating. You’re in the space but not of it. This bringing together of contrasting dichotomies seems to be a favourite theme of hers. It appears in her other works as well. I couldn’t stay long in that room. In fact I need a bit of a lie down now.

Flowers that Bloom at Midnight

This work was cool. Trippy, but cool. 4 of these big, pudgy looking flowers are arranged around the room, apparently to form a kind of grove. More were needed for that effect to really work, but I still got into this work. Again Kusama manages to get a bunch of dichotomies together in these things – they’re at once familiar (reminiscent of pop culture sci-fi and fantasy images) and for that reason also alien, organic and artificial, childlike and aggressive, playful and menacing. Again i felt like an outsider – I felt like I was on an alien planet, like I didn’t belong. Although my immediate impression was one of fun, almost girly, cartoony oversized flowers, there was a real sinister and unsettling sense about them. Those eyes – cold, baleful, emotionless – I was very much other. There was a subtle complexity to these monsters or whatever you think of them which it took me a while to grasp.

After viewing these sculptures I read that both flowers and polka dots are common motifs in Kusama’s work because they belonged to a series of hallucinations she suffered as a child. It helps to explain the room to know she saw her environment covered in dots. And if, as she said, these hallucinations occurred due to tense family dynamics or circumstances, perhaps I wasn’t simply reading that sense of being overwhelmed by the space, feeling dislocated and an outsider into the works.

It helped me to appreciate something about contemporary art a lot of us can miss when we stare blankly at some absolutely bizarre concoction and think ‘I don’t get it’. The ability to bypass a ‘message’ and instead create something that touches and draws out the sometimes complex, sometimes unsettling experience of living. In this case touching on the subtle dichotomies and clashing emotive associations residing in so much of our everyday experience.

And I’ll never see the harmless polka dot the same way again.


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