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March 16, 2019

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Polka dots abound at Kusama’s latest show

POLKA dots are everywhere! Yes, Yayoi Kusama is back. Since her first solo-exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai in 2013, her popularity has never waned.

Her latest exhibition, organized by the Fosun Foundation, was unveiled last week. A symbolic work, a 3-meter-tall sculpture in the shape of a black-dotted yellow pumpkin, is placed outdoors at the southern plaza of the Bund Finance Center.

Considered one of Japan’s most important living artists, Kusama works primarily in sculptures and installations, but is also active in painting, performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction and other arts. Her work is based in conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, art brut, pop art and abstract expressionism, infused with autobiographical, psychological and sexual content.

The new exhibition features nearly 42 works by Kusama, including some using her symbolic motifs such as pumpkins, mirrored rooms and polka dots, and several large immersive and multi-reflective installations have been created for the exhibition.

A path lined with convex mirrors entitled “Invisible Life” is placed in the exhibition hall to guide visitors on a journey of exploration. Each mirror represents a polka dot that continuously reflects the visitors, the buildings, and the surrounding environment. Viewers are immersed in the mirrors’ multiple reflections, and they and the building are constantly flashing in the mirrors, inspiring them to re-examine the relationship between them and the world.

The striking visual effect immediately sparked the taking of lots of selfies.

Another highlight is a large-scale installation called “The Hope of the Polka Dots Buried in Infinity will Eternally Cover the Universe,” a yellow stem-like pattern and Kusama’s iconic polka dots are intricately twisted to envelope a six-meter high-rise space.

Born into an affluent family of merchants in 1929 in Mastumoto, Kusama started creating art at an early age. But she had a physically abusive mother. When she was 10 years old, she began to experience vivid hallucinations which she has described as “flash of light, auras or dense fields of dots.”

The repetition of polka dots is more like a therapy than communication. For her, “a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement … and dots are a way to infinity.”

For most of her days, she is lonely and in pain. She once said: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

She desperately seeks psychological safety as a basic instinct in art. She paints or creates because she has to, because such acts ease her agony.

Her studio, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s, is a short distance from a hospital.

It is a pity that so little documentation about Kusama’s inner-life can be found at the exhibition, which shies away a more in-depth insight into the artist and her artistic path.

“I am a little disappointed at this exhibition,” said one young Taiwan visitor. “The lack of variety of her works plus a clear curating theme are obvious here. Sure, some of the striking scenes are perfect pictures to be shown on WeChat.”

Kathy Wei, a 35-year-old office worker, complained: “The admission fee is a bit high. I remembered that admission fees wouldn’t exceed 100 yuan (US$15) for exhibitions in town a couple of years ago.”

Many visitors recalled Kusama’s first exhibition at MoCA. “A Dream I Dreamed” cost visitors just 50 yuan in 2013.

Kim Sun Hee, the Korean curator for Kusama’s first exhibition in Shanghai, is a long-time friend of the artist. Her team communicated directly with the artist’s studio, selecting representative works and providing abundant supporting documentation.

The three-month exhibition at MoCA attracted nearly 330,000 visitors — an average of 3,000 per day.

At the beginning, the museum didn’t even think of using a 1-meter line between the work and visitors in an immersive surrounding, and the large crowds flooding into the museum everyday caused great concern over potential dangers.

That exhibition ignited a “fever” for Kusama or, to be more exact, immersive installation exhibitions.

Such exhibitions often focus on experiences that depend on high-tech, best at attracting a younger generation who grew up with various screens.

In another example, news of the opening exhibition by teamLab at TANK Shanghai this month thrilled young people.

However due to the lack of a professional and mature curating team at some of the private art museums, documentation about the artist and the work is far from satisfactory.

Apart from rising admission fees, the quality of exhibitions is also a big issue.

“This is the new art trend, but I don’t believe this is all about art,” said Wang Yuhong, a local oil painter, “In my eyes, sometimes it is too shallow to go to an exhibit for merely a picture without sufficient input of the artist and the work itself.

“Art doesn’t merely function as entertaining, it rather evokes thoughts and ponderings. That should be an indispensable part that to be found in a quality exhibition.”


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