Monday June 19, 2017
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'The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into The Heavens'... you stand in a polka dotted room with a large mirror cube inside, you peep in and see this! — Pictures courtesy of National Gallery Singapore'The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into The Heavens'... you stand in a polka dotted room with a large mirror cube inside, you peep in and see this! — Pictures courtesy of National Gallery SingaporeKUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — It doesn't matter that the only thing you know (or not) about Yayoi Kusama is her collaboration with Louis Vuitton back in 2012 which resulted in those polka-dotted handbags that either made you clap your hands in glee or snigger cynically.

Or maybe you have a morbid fascination for this woman who has lived voluntarily in a mental hospital for the past four decades.

Yes, it does not matter what makes you go to the Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow exhibition which opened at the National Gallery Singapore last week.

But go, you must.

This is your chance to get up close and personal to an avant garde artist who has been called the most popular artist in the world based on the number of people who visit her shows. 

When her works were on show earlier this year at The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a record 160,000 people visited her exhibition. (This was the same exhibition where one selfie-taking fan broke a Yayoi pumpkin.)

More than 120 of her works — spanning 70 years — are spread across 2,000 square metres of the National Gallery. But even before you enter the gallery itself, you will see the imposing building's magnificent columns jauntily wrapped in polka dots. In red and white.

'With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever' is a huge installation, a room you walk into and walk around.'With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever' is a huge installation, a room you walk into and walk around.And once inside the central atrium, you are greeted with huge polka dotted balloons. This time in yellow and brown.

The show is divided into three sections. You begin with paintings from the 1950s which show the development of her signature motifs — dots, infinity nets and pumpkins — which you will see again and again in one form or the other in most of her works.

Next up are sculptures, collages and performance videos that engage with the human body.

The third section covers a few large-scale installations and a look at some of her latest works.

As you stand in the last hall and take in the colourful paintings that seem to bear hardly any resemblance to the first few works you saw in the first hall — but which have many of the recurring motifs — you feel a sense of hope.

A pretty wonderful feeling considering the source of her "inspiration" were visual and aural hallucinations she has had since she was a child; she saw dots, nets and giant flowers.

Curated thoughtfully by Russell Storer, National Gallery Singapore's deputy director (curatorial and collections development) and curator Adele Tan, along with curator Reuben Keehan of Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, the exhibition is delightful (these days, it feels like this is a very key consideration) and thought-provoking but not overwhelming.

'Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict' (1999) is a video performance... the artist herself in her signature red wig and polka dotted dress.'Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict' (1999) is a video performance... the artist herself in her signature red wig and polka dotted dress.No doubt many of those who come to this exquisite survey exhibition of the 88-year-old Japanese artist's works will treat it like one giant photo op. (A check on social media shows many, many selfies taken already in the week since the exhibition opened.)

And except for a few exhibits, you are free to snap away at the many artworks that range from paintings, soft sculptures, videos, installations, etc.

Anticipating this, the National Gallery even came up with a hashtag — #SGLovesKusama — which they are encouraging visitors use when they post on their social media.

One of the pieces you cannot photograph is Phallic Girl, 1967 which is a mannequin covered with penises but you can take pictures of My Bleeding Heart, 1994 or Woman's Castle, 1994 which are boxes of sewn stuffed penises lit up with fluorescent light... they might get a giggle out of visitors but they were done not just to shock but to work out her fear of sex brought on by childhood trauma when her mother made her spy on her philandering father.

Yayoi associated sex with misery, and later on she equated the phallus with the male ego which she credits with the cause of all wars. Although she lived through the sexual revolution where “free love” was so on-trend, Yayoi never really cared for it. Her longest relationship with a man — the late American artist Joseph Cornell — was a passionate but platonic one.

Which brings us back to those happy polka dots. By their very definition, there are no singular polka dots... it has to be plural. They also represent infinity. A sea of dots. Yayoi's need to cover or "obliterate" objects with polka dots is to wipe away that singularity, that ego.

'Gleaming Lights of the Soul' is the most mesmerising of the infitinity mirror rooms because you step into it!'Gleaming Lights of the Soul' is the most mesmerising of the infitinity mirror rooms because you step into it!Looking at some of her projects — the 1968 demonstrations at Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge and Central Part in 1968 where she painted naked people with polka dots in a symbolic gesture to obliterate war and capitalism or the many penis soft sculptures — you realise she has done it all.

I know these will probably not be the most popular parts of the exhibition but they are important. Don't just ignore them as you zip around taking pictures of the infinity mirror rooms (there are three and you can go inside one of them... a must-do!) and polka dotted whatevers.

This is not the first time her work has been seen in Singapore. Back in 2006, she was part of the Biennale but this is Yayoi's first major show in South-east Asia.

It really is a treat — whether you are an art fan or just plain curious — and worth making the trip down to the Lil Red Dot. Like Russell Storer said, "Kusama's world is complex: full of colour and powerful symbolism... you are transported to a universe that is deeply imtimate as well as potentially boundless."

Yes, you will be transported.

The exhibition is on till September 3, 2017 and is at the National Gallery's Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery on Level 3. It's S$15 for Singaporeans and permanent residents, and S$25 (about RM77) for non-Singaporeans. Tickets will be sold every hour so there won't be congestion in the galleries.

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