Partial Reverie: Yayoi Kusama at MoCA Shanghai

Kusama: A Dream I Dreamed

MoCA, Shanghai (People’s Park, 231 Nanjing West Road, Shanghai, 200003, China), December 15, 2013 to March 30, 2014

If numbers are the only indicator, the long queue outside the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) on the opening day of Yayoi Kusama’s solo exhibition signaled it as an astounding success before anyone even made it through the door. Braving the frigid damp December chill, a diverse crowd of young and old, foreigners and Chinese, patiently awaited their entry into the Technicolor dream world of the eighty-four year old Japanese female artist. “A Dream I Dreamed,” curated by Kim Sunhee, (formerly of Bund 18 and Zendai / Himalayas) seeks to replicate the allure of the Kusama retrospective curated by Frances Morris which was held at the Tate Modern in 2012. The European retrospective had begun its whirlwind tour at Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, moving onto the Centre Pompidou in Paris, then pausing at the Tate Modern in London before crossing the pond to the Whitney in New York before traveling on to South America.

Unlike Morris’ achievement in assembling a comprehensive retrospective, there are visible lacunae at MoCA. Despite almost seven decades of prodigious artistic outpouring, the solo exhibition relies heavily on Kusama’s most recent paintings, a few iconic installations and key sculptures such as the large-scale set of “Pumpkin.” works. Lacking are the nihonga paintings Kusama produced during her early years as well as the wildly phantasmagoric images conceived in water-based mixed media from the 1950s—the starting points for many of her later paintings. More, however, acute is the absence (the exception being the laconic “Manhattan Suicide Addict”) of visual footage of photo stills and videos exemplifying Kusama’s performance art and happenings during her years in the US from 1957 to 1973, which had propelled her to renown and are available in duplicates and triplicates in Kusama archives. Yet, despite such arresting gaps, the crowds seemed oblivious and continued to stand in lines in the hopes of sighting the spectacles of Kusama’s vibrantly lit “Infinity Mirror Room—Gleaming Lights of the Souls” and the polka-dotted “Obliteration Room” fabricated with IKEA furnishings where they can, with colored-spotted stickers, “add to” Kusama’s work. (1)

Kusama Yayoi, “Pumpkins”, F.R.P. (fiberglass reinforced plastic), urethane paint, metal, 2013

Undoubtedly, Kusama’s prominent fame and lasting appeal owes much to the straightforward, no-nonsense accessibility of her work. The highly charged outpouring of vibrant colors embodied in her paintings, the graspable tactility of her sculptural pieces, and profusion of shimmering lights defining her installations beckon with tantalizing enticement. The result is a rapid-fire, sensory overload that mesmerizes through direct visual stimulation that enchants the viewers today as they did so in yesteryear. Ironically, what is not so apparent (due to the dearth of information provided on wall text and brochure) is the significant position Kusama commands in art history and the crucial context of internationalized art in which her work emerged. Kusama’s legendary status was firmly established years before a single crate of painting or sculpture had reached the ports of Shanghai. With the obstacles of being both Asian and female, she had defied not only gravity with her mirrored installations but had also managed to expressly levitate herself from the male-dominated artistic platform.

Kusama was born in Matsumoto City, a provincial town in the region of Nagano Prefecture on March 22, 1929, about six years after the radical art group Mavo had emerged to capitulate the refined and conservative world of Japanese official art known as the Teiten. (2) Mavo was Japan’s first interventionist art movement that generated awareness through public protest. (3) It was led by the passionate, self-trained, Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901-1977), who promoted “conscious” artistic liberation as a response to the reformist measures taking place in the civil society of the Taishō Era (1912-1926). Unifying European Modernism with Japanese Futurist Art Movement , Mavo was critical for engendering cultural anarchism. By integrating socio-political ideals into their artistic practice, they propelled direct critiques against the official and semi-official establishments. It was Mavo artists who exploited the power of performance art for mass consumption in the public arena through the use of the body including cross-dressing happenings which underscored the socially rigid hierarchies of gender and sexual inequality.

Kusama Yayoi, “Dots Obsession”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2013.

About a decade later, in 1954, the visionary Yoshihara Jirō (1905-1979) formed the collective Gutai (meaning “Concrete Form”) which aspired to herald another major breach against institutional art and to prominently re-define Japan’s post-war artistic identity. (4) Spanning eighteen years and four continents, Gutai was comprised of fifty-nine Japanese artists active until 1972 who sought to radically subvert and thereby take possession of art as a truly expressive idiom of their lived reality. Their language of gestural art blurred the boundaries between creation and destruction. Its member Kazuo Shiraga not only “painted” by slathering oil pigments on canvas with his feet but also catapulted himself into a mass of mud, sand and gravel to foreground the body as the site and vehicle of artistic practice. In 1956, the female artist Tanaka Atsuko constructed her infamous “Electric Dress” wired with colored light bulbs that visually exploded like fireworks. Moving to Seattle, Washington in 1957, Kusama was not involved with Gutai. She deliberately kept her distance from any organized artistic collectives and movements. Nonetheless, Kusama kept pace with the latest artistic trends taking place in Japan, Europe and the US. (5) Indeed, Kusama would have been fully cognizant of Gutai’s dramatic penetration into not only the sphere of the arts but also the Japanese society, which was fostering general complacency associated with rising economic prosperity. Aspects of Gutai’s insubordinate and defiant gestures resonate in Kusama’s publicly orchestrated naked performances and happenings from 1967 to 1970 such as the “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA,” 1969 and her attempt to sell her site-specific metallic balls “like hot dogs or ice cream cones” for about $2.00 a piece at the 1966 Venice Biennale. From 1958 when such preposterous act was unprecedented. In 1958, while residing in New York City, Kusama occupied a studio located beneath Donald Judd and next to Eva Hesse where the artists tended to collaborate and support each other. Kusama also managed to entangle herself in a “passionate but platonic” relationship with Joseph Cornell who was 26 year her senior. (6) In 1973, she returned to Japan, but not before she had inspired Andy Warhol to create wall paper as art and introduced Claes Oldenburg, to soft sculptures. (7) In assessing her works, as historical conditions present, Kusama had firm access to and thereby was able to engage with disparate styles, methods and discourses available in Japan and the United States. Thus, her artistic praxis developed within the realm of not one specific geographical area but rather in a dynamic international milieu of cross currents. (8) She was the prototype of a global artist before the term ever came into ubiquitous usage.

Years after her return to Japan, from about the 1990s, Kusama began creating paintings that exploited the aesthetics of flatness and sculptures which embodied the kawaii aesthetic to, sustain the continuum of the Japanese demonstrative artistic counter-culture of rejecting the accepted and perceived tradition of “fine art.” (9) As a complex and prolific artist, Kusama marks her days plotting bold dots in the trajectory of Japanese contemporary art. Her installations of floating world constructed with flickering lights have few precedents in their lasting three dimensional transformation of space, even for the accidental viewer at MoCA, Shanghai.

Kusama Yayoi, “Infinity Mirror—Gleaming Lights of the Souls,” mirror, wooden panel, LED, metal, acrylic panel, water, 2008


(1) Kusama conceived the “Obliteration Room” as a site-specific piece for the Queensland Art Gallery’s “APT 2002: Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.” It was expanded with locally sourced furniture for “Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever” solo exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery (Nov. 18, 2011 – March 11, 2012). The concept of creating the “Obliteration Room” with IKEA furnishings was initiated by Frances Morris for the Tate Modern retrospective. Hear “Kusama curator’s talk and private view,” (May 31, 2012), (accessed Jan. 1, 2014).

(2) Established in 1918, Teiten is the shortened name for Teikoku Bijutsuin Tenrankai (Exhibition of the Imperial Art Academy), which sought to reform the Bunten or Monbusho Bijutsu Tenrankai (Ministry of Education Fine Art Exhibition) inaugurated by the state in 1907. Yet, despite its efforts, Teiten continued to be gripped by conservative views of the state-controlled art establishment.

(3) For a full account of Mavo, see Gennifer Weisenfeld, Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-garde, 1905-1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

(4) “Gutai” is the abbreviated name for Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai (Gutai Art Association). The translation of the term “Concrete Form” is taken from Ming Tiempo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). Other translations for Gutai such as “Concreteness” or “Embodiment” have also been widely used.

(5) Kusama’s interest in artistic developments in Japan and elsewhere is accounted by Midori Yamamura in “Rising from Totalitarianism: Yayaoi Kusma 1945-1955” in Yayoi Kusama, ed. Frances Morris (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), pp. 169-175.

(6) Rachel Taylor, “Kusama’s relationship with Joseph Cornell,” Tate Blog (May 22, 2012), (accessed Feb. 19, 2014).

(7) According to Rachel Taylor, “Kusama’s use of repeated motif to line the walls of a gallery space predates Andy Warhol’s ‘Cow Wallpaper’ by three years.” Both artists had exhibited in a group show with Claes Oldenberg, James Rosenquist and George Segal at New York’s Green Gallery in June 1962. See Yayoi Kusama, ed. Frances Morris (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), pp. 12-13 and 71.

The inspiration for Claes Oldenburg’s soft-sculpture is taken from The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Volume 1, ed. Joan M. Marter (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 84.

(8) Studies abound that address the artistic interchange between Japan and the West. The most recent examination is The Third Mind: The American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, Exhibition catalogue (New York: Guggenheim Museum, June 20, 2012). For the West’s impact on Japanese art, see Japan and Paris: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and the Modern Era, with essays by Christine M.E. Guth, Alicia Volk and Emiko Yamanashi (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2004). Regarding Japan’s role on European art, see Gabriel P. Weisberg et al, The Orient Expressed: Japan’s Influence on Western Art 1854-1918 (Jackson: Mississippi Museum of Art; Seattle: in association with University of Washington Press, 2011). For a revised interpretation that seeks to restore art historical imbalance within art historical canons, see Ming Tiempo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism cited above.

(9) For an assessment of Japanese postmodern art, see David Elliott and Tetsuya Ozaki, Bye Bye Kitty!!!: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (New York: Japan Society; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

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