Into infinity: Yayoi Kusama in Brisbane

Yayoi Kusama, The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens, 2017, installation view, ‘Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane, 2017; mirror box 200 x 200 x 200cm (approx.); room 300 x 600 x 600cm (approx.); photo: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

Yayoi Kusama, The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens, 2017, installation view, ‘Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane, 2017; mirror box 200 x 200 x 200cm (approx.); room 300 x 600 x 600cm (approx.); photo: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

The Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) is where to find Yayoi Kusama’s most comprehensive survey yet seen in this region. ‘Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’ (until 11 February 2018) is a wideranging look at the artist’s iconic motifs, engagement with the human body and her expressions of infinity. Co-curated by Russell Storer and Adele Tan from the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) along with QAGOMA’s Reuben Keehan, the show was held at the NGS before coming to its partner venue in Brisbane.

One of the exhibition’s most important tasks is to refocus the public’s attention on the artist’s origins. Kusama’s practice began just before the Second World War while she was a child. Her exposure to wartime propaganda and nationalist sentiment made an impact on the young non-conformist artist. It prompted her to pursue the comparatively endless possibilities of the avant-garde.

On display in the first stage of the exhibition are early works such as Flower (1952), made as she began her interest in surrealism. Using the movement’s method of obsessive subconscious production, the ink and pastel work is a dotted surface that holds the abstracted shape of a flower. Although Kusama destroyed a great deal of her art before moving to the United States in 1957, this early surviving piece provides a strong link to her iconic polka-dot motif that she continues to the present day.

In the second room of the exhibition, viewers gaze at her painted Sex Obsession (1992), a writhing mess of yellow-and-black polka-dotted threads, as well as a flashing, glowing pink Women’s Castle (1994). But Kusama’s interest in the human body goes beyond abstraction; by the 1960s she was staging events known as ‘body festivals’ and ‘naked happenings’ around New York, even inside the Museum of Modern Art, in which naked models would act as Kusama’s human canvases.

Her audiences’ bodies are important too: the large net paintings, such as Infinity Nets (2000), with their subtle patterns, demand viewers come close and be engulfed in an almost physical way. When peering inside a 2017 work modelled from the 1966 installation Kusama’s Peep Show, it is the viewer’s body that takes centrestage as their inquisitive face is reflected back at them and into infinity. ‘Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’ features this, and other works, that display the ability of Kusama’s practice to not only cover multiple creative themes but also to stretch across decades at the same time.   

Emily Wakeling, Brisbane