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Seeing everything

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Yayoi Kusama’s work has wide audience appeal. An exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery last year and a 2009 exhibition at City Art Gallery in Wellington both attracted large numbers and a lot of interest. In Wellington queues stretched around the block. Sophie McKinnon takes a fresh look at her work in New York.

Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden

Part of Rockaway! at Gateway National Recreation Area at Fort Tilden, New York

1 July – 3 September, 2018.

Kusama performing 1967 piece Horse Play in Woodstock NY, part of the display at Fort Tilden

I saw Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden for the first time on the roof of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014, on a rainy summer afternoon with around 40 primary-school-aged children. When they were asked what they noticed first about the piece, one student answered ’You can see everything in them.’ Two years later the mirrored balls floated on the pond surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glasshouse in Fairfield, Connecticut. In 2018, they were installed at the decommissioned Fort Tilden as part of Rockaway! – a partnership between MoMA and the Rockaway Artist Alliance which celebrates the recovery of the area from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The site, an hour out of New York City on Brooklyn’s Far Rockaways beach coast, drew thousands of visitors. Each iteration of Narcissus Garden has its own character, but certain aspects remain unchanging and captivating.

Public installation can be feverish hit or complete miss − think of Burren and Keen’s Bucket Fountain (1969) and its persistent place in the Wellington imagination, or Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) which was eventually removed from New York City’s Federal Plaza for disrupting the flow of pedestrians. The ongoing journey of Kusama’s Narcissus Garden installation has withstood the test not only of decades, but of place and context.

The scene inside the fort building was the usual mix of momentary awe, social media adrenaline, and unfettered selfie posing. Without a lick of irony, crowds of visitors rushed into the space with hot urgency, shuttering every second of their visit before being gently reminded that they had only three minutes remaining. Part of this is the inevitable result of an imposed time constraint, but another is the sheer insta-irresistibility of a former military structure filled with graffiti, evening light and a carpet of gleaming orbs that reflect you perfectly and differently from every angle. Kusama could not have anticipated, but is perhaps unsurprised, at how aptly her entire body of work has meshed with the internet generation, the relentless documentation of self, and the wonderment of an individual repeated in (cyber) space ad infinitum. But there seems to be a disconnect now between an insatiably narcissistic public and Kusama’s original practice which explored healing and survival.

Gateway National Recreation Area at Fort Tilden, T9 building. Site of Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden for Rockaway! 2018. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo by Pablo Enriquez

Kusama’s long struggle with mental health is well documented. Her lifelong preoccupation with dots, spots, patterns, and repetition go back to her early youth, when she began to paint what she described as hallucinations. From a difficult homelife she forged a place for herself in the open-minded art community of New York in the 1960s, and was critically praised for a vision both bold and unique. Her commercial success, however, was limited, and she suffered frequent breakdowns. Joseph Cornell reportedly gave her some of his own pieces to sell in an effort to provide cashflow. Leaving New York in 1972 after 14 years there, she returned to Japan and admitted herself to Tokyo’s Seiwa mental hospital, where she resides to this day, continuing to make work. Concepts of obliteration, of finding peace in a self-constructed universe, and of catalyzing a mode of being that forces an appreciation of the present were deeply bound up in her paintings, performances, and installations.

The criticisms of Kusama’s work can at times outweigh the praise; and the ubiquity of their re-staging tends to eclipse the brilliance of the original conceit. Revisiting those ideas, and revisiting her, can be invigorating.

Narcissus Garden was always a public work, but not an accepted one initially. Funded by Italian spatialist artist Lucio Fontana, in whose studio she was working at the time, Kusama first performed Narcissus Garden on the outdoor lawn of the Italian Pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale (in which she was not included but was permitted to perform). Standing in floor-length robes amidst 1500 identical mirror-surfaced balls, she engaged visitors with a hand-painted sign reading ‘Your Narcissism for Sale’ − both a critique of the art market and an act of performative dissemination. She priced each ball at 1200 lira (USD $2) and made some sales, before being asked to leave by the Biennale authorities, who had not agreed to this transactional shift. The spheres however, remained.

Yayoi Kusama's Narcissus Garden installation at the Rockaways, Fort Tilden

Back in New York, she would go on to stage numerous performances, largely unofficially and in public sites. They often involved nude or semi-nude volunteer members of the artist community, who she would cover in dots. Her rogue performance in the sculpture garden fountain at MoMA in 1969, Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead, extolled both body and community, and was featured the next day on the cover of the Daily News. Images of her at this time have a decidedly maternal quality, with tender and affirming expressions that brought individuals into the fold.

The impulse to capture and share expressed in Narcissus Garden is confounded by its overcrowded popularity and long wait-times for viewing; but the frenzy speaks to a more instinctual set of statements: showing up, being present, and participating in something bigger than oneself. Apart from the obvious redundancy that the spheres in Narcissus Garden are no longer for sale, Kusama’s installations are meticulously constructed to allow self-affirmation, and the internet with its limitless space for sharing, allows those actions to self perpetuate. If we can just overcome the euphoria of seeing ourselves reflected in the Kusama universe, we can relish the enduring immediacy of her endlessly giving gesture.

First published ArtZone #76


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