Yayoi Kusuma at the Tate

By Rob Packer

Apart from friends and family, the best thing about being back in London is just the range of cultural options. Each one of the seven arts is here in force: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance and cinema. Sunday was the turn of sculpture and painting and my first trip to the Tate Modern in more than a year to see the Yayoi Kusuma retrospective (continuing until 5 June).

I’d not heard much about Kusuma (1929—) before the exhibition probably because this is the largest exhibit of her work ever in the UK. My friend, Albert, was on hand though to give me a one-sentence rundown just before going in: “When she reached 50, she checked herself into a hospital and has been living there ever since.”

Kusuma moved to the United States in 1957, returning to Japan in 1973, and there is a complete transformation between the painting of her early years in Japan and her more expressive installations in the US. For me, her formative works were some of her most interesting: she originally apprenticed as a traditional Nihonga painter but gave it up and taught herself European and American avant-garde painting instead. In one painting, she draws you into the claustrophobia of post-war Japan: as you look at the circle of bodies transformed into ropes surrounding two leafless trees, you realize that instead of looking into the painting, you’re actually looking out at the world outside the prison walls. In another, she represents a heart as a red splodge with black lines that makes it look like she’s inside the body with a torch. And a series of similar-looking, diversely coloured round objects that represent germ cells, sunspots or flower buds, suggest universality between astronomical and biological.

Her move to the US looks a clean break with Japan, as she became involved with the New York art scene of Andy Warhol. At the same time, two symbols came to the fore that would become her trademark: the polka dot and the phallus. And they go everywhere: fabric phalli on shoes, a canoe full of phalli, phalli cooked on a baking tray, polka dots on a horse, polka dots on people at a naked 1960s happening, etc. So much so, I was half expecting to hear a five-year-old (there were plenty in the gallery) ask: “Mummy, what’s a phallus?”

After Kusuma returned to Japan in 1973 and checked herself into a hospital in 1977 (where she also set up an atelier), her style changed again with large paintings, some with spermatozoa shapes—that one prim commentator called “sprouting polka-dots” or “tadpoles”. Her recent years in Japan also produced the most spectacular and approachable installations of the show: a darkened family living room with everything covered in fluorescent polka dots and a mirror-covered room with tiny, round lights flashing in different colours.

For an artist active for over 60 years and covering a wide range of media, it’s difficult for any retrospective to be representative of the entire opus. Her early painting was fascinating and her two recent room-sized installations hypnotic. While interesting and influential, her US period with its polka dots and protuberances actually ended up feeling repetitive after a while and we did end up leaving with something approaching phallus fatigue.

Yayoi Kusuma, Tate Modern (until 5 June 2012)

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