Dotting the ‘I’

Whatever else is to be learned from ‘A Dream I Dreamed’ — the Kusama Yayoi exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai (Dec 15 to March 30, 2014) — the most superficially striking lesson is sociological. Shanghainese — and especially young Shanghainese — can’t get enough of this stuff. After almost two months, queues no longer regularly stretch all the way through People’s Park and out onto Nanjing Xi Lu, but they still over-spill the gallery. Both thematically and socially, this is a show about multitudes.

Kusama, born in 1929, has an artistic career stretching back to the 1950s. Throughout seven decades, as her celebrity has waxed and waned in waves, her artistic focus — or, more exactly, her strategic ‘obliteration’ of focus — has remained remarkably constant. Sensuous disintegration of self and world into dot pattern has been a continuous preoccupation.

The MoCA show concentrates upon Kusama’s very recent work, mostly from the last two years. To a general audience, the best known pieces are probably her large, brightly bi-colored, speckled pumpkins, enjoyed for their pop-art accessibility and unpretentious aestheticism. When encountered within the context of the show, however, the disciplined dot shading on these works takes on an unsuspected seriousness, as it is sucked into swirls, drifts, and flurries of dots in different colors, across picture planes and sculptured surfaces, and even into illusory volumes. Through a power of pure multiplicity, Kusama’s vivid, relentlessly cheerful pop-art chromatics become the tails of neonized guiding streaks, hurtling into cosmic vistas and shattered states of being.

Dotted tulips, dotted dogs, huge mushroom-styled dotted spheres, ‘Infinity Dots’ (2012), ‘Infinity Double Dots’ (2013), and the ‘Infinity Nets’ (numerous, 2013) created by the diffuse dot-puncturing of space … it becomes all-too easy to understand why Kusama chooses to live in a Japanese mental hospital as an OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) patient, and why her own accounts of her work wander so uninterruptedly between aesthetics and psychopathology. Her installation ‘I’m Here, but Nothing’ (2013), consisting of a living room  suffused with violet light and blitzed with countless hallucinatory dots, provides something close to an insanity portal. Visitors entering the ‘Obliteration Room’ are handed a sheet of colorful dot stickers and invited to go crazy. It’s at once humorously and seriously dotty.

The works are typically without center, diffusing perception smoothly across sheer distribution, sometimes through spaces expanded to infinity through installed mirrors. The sense of religious suggestion is occasionally made explicit, as in ‘Transmigration’ (2011) — an ‘infinity-net’ style acrylic painting whose numinous title is only reinforced by its thematic continuity with the rest of the show. In  ‘Narcissus Garden’ (2013), a packed array of stainless steel spheres, mirroring and the assembly of featureless particles are finally fused (although this work is more notable for its neat infolding of Kusama’s artistic vocabulary than for its aesthetic power). To immerse ‘oneself’ in this exhibition is to be strewn across the void, lost in clouds, and in crowds.

Kusama’s appeal manifests an East Asian  ‘pop’ sensibility that clearly works in Shanghai, attesting once again to the influence of contemporary Japanese culture throughout the region, and to the continued relevance of common religious traditions. Beyond — or simply through — the deliberate frivolity of this work, something profound, and shattering, is being shared. It’s well worth adding yourself to the crowds.

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