SUPPORTED BY YAYOI KUSAMA, 9th FEBRUARY-5th JUNE 2012
I may have this the wrong way around, or I may not. Kusama is now in her eighties, and she’s been working as an artist since the 1950s, so in one sense a major retrospective of her work is long overdue. Possibly somebody thought it was not only overdue but probably also prudent to do one before she drops off the perch, if only to encourage her to bang out a few more paintings WHICH ARE COINCIDENTALLY FOR SALE AT VICTORIA MIRO CONCURRENTLY WITH THIS HUGE EXHIBITION AT BRITAIN’S LARGEST CONTEMPORARY ART INSTITUTION, AN EXHIBITION THAT WILL SURELY HAVE DRIVEN UP DEMAND AND PRICING FOR KUSAMA’S WORK. Funny, that.
There’s an art world insider story about Victoria Miro- one that may just be a funny story with no basis in fact, but in any case as far as I know it’s a story hitherto unreported to civilians- about the way she’s been known to go up behind potential collectors of an artist’s work and whisper things like she’s an absolute genius! in their ear as a way of encouraging them to buy and/or instilling a sense that they’ll be missing out terribly if they don’t commit now. If the story’s true then her marketing technique is equal parts Jiminy Cricket, Jim Jones, Carphone Warehouse salesperson, and schizophrenic head-voice. I think Victoria should have just gone all out and stood outside Tate Modern with a fluorescent GOLF SALE-type sign pointing at her gallery.
Kusama’s paintings from the 1990s onwards- described here as a return to painting with “new vigour” and as experiments with multi-panel forms, etc. are probably best viewed in light of the commercial considerations I’ve just drawn attention to. “New vigour” probably= “running a bit short of money.” I don’t know if Kusama genuinely enjoys making these works or thinks of them in any kind of critical way, but as traditionally unique, attractive (though mostly quite dull), saleable, wall-based objects they certainly fulfil the function of providing her and her gallerists with a steady income that’s almost certainly lacking when she chooses to make work that involves environments, interventions or the creation of particular feelings. That’s perfectly OK. Nobody can blame her for that. I just wish everyone would be a bit more honest about it.
The branded, commercialised hoopla that seems to inevitably surround a show like this is a shame, because there’s a lot to admire in Kusama’s life, work and career. She may not have won her lifelong struggles with mental illness because real life rarely works out like a Hollywood movie, or even like a Hollywood biopic of a famous artist, but I think it’s fair to say that she’s at least got some use out of the demons that obviously plague her. She also battled through to establish herself in a very white, very Western, very male art world. Originally I ended the previous sentence with .”… at a time when this was particularly difficult”, but shamefully this is still a battle that lots of female, not to the manor born, non-white and/or non-Western artists are having to engage in more than half a century later.
Her performance or intervention works (such as Walking Piece from 1966) still stand up today as interesting and valuable matters of legitimate interest and study. Her deceptively simple Infinity Rooms can be sublime, proper capital A Art in the sense that they expand consciousness and temporarily jog us out of the mundane ways in which we usually regard the world and ourselves. The particular version she made for the Tate, looked at pragmatically, is just lights and mirrors in a darkened room but I heard it provoking expressions of awe nonetheless.
Art can change us, change things in the world., and it doesn’t have to be complicated or hedged around with critical discourse and approval in order to create those changes. We should try to remember that art can be about that magical transformation of things and not just about public galleries acting as shills for private interests and the profits of individuals, or about flogging designer handbags.