Yayoi Kusama exhibition in Singapore: Interview with National Gallery's curator of Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, Russell Storer
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Inside the Mind's Eye of Yayoi Kusama

What makes Yayoi Kusama the grand dame of avant-garde?
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SHE IS A celebrated avant-garde visionary of the 20th and 21st century, who has lived through World War II and the Vietnam war, and has been plagued with mental health issues since childhood. Little is known about the goings-on inside of 88-year-old Yayoi Kusama’s head, yet one can guess that her thought processes have to do with a lifelong desire to escape the psychiatric prison she has been encaged in since childhood. The result: an immediately recognisable and vivid body of work of fantastical proportions.

Earlier this month, Life is the Heart of a Rainbow – the first major survey of her work in Southeast Asiavisitors – opened in the National Gallery Singapore. Visitors will get a chance to view 120 paintings, sculptures, videos and installations as well as new works by the prolific artist. We speak to Russell Storer, the gallery’s Deputy Director of Curatorial and Collections, who gives us insight into the life and works of Kusama.

Right: Kusama's installation of Narcissus Garden in Venice in 1966. National Gallery Singapore will stage this work in the City Hall Chamber with 1,500 stainless steel balls.

How does the title of this exhibition capture what the show is trying to convey?

The title of the exhibition comes from one of Kusama’s new paintings of the same name. Both the title and the use of vibrant colours capture an optimistic and expansive perspective on life by the artist. The word “life” appears in a lot of Kusama’s artwork titles – for her, art and life are closely intertwined. In this exhibition, we present key works that represent each major period of her life and artistic practice.

What is the aim of this exhibition?

To demonstrate the beauty and diversity of her work, its development over time, and to provide audiences with an understanding of her significance in art history. She was always a pioneer: one of the first Japanese artists to move to New York in the late ’50s and to exhibit with leading artists in the United States and Europe, and still one of the few Asian artists who is a household name. She has been influential in the fields of art, literature, fashion and popular culture for decades, and is still producing new works every day.

We see Kusama’s work as a powerful introduction to important modern art movements and methods such as Surrealism, Pop, Minimalism, happenings, abstraction, and conceptual art, as her work connects to all of these. However, she is also a resolutely unique and individual artist, who never allied herself with any one group, and was often ahead of these movements. She is also one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, and highly relevant to our interest in exploring the relationships between Asian art and the rest of the world.

"We see Yayoi Kusama's work as a powerful introduction to important modern art movements and methods, as her work connects to all of these."

New works will be on display for the first time. What can we expect to see? How are these works indicative of her present state of mind and what was she inspired by to create these pieces?

Since 2009, Kusama has been creating an epic cycle of paintings titled My Eternal Soul. This is what occupies her every day, and what began as a planned series of 100 paintings now numbers over 500. Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is one of several paintings from this series premiering in this exhibition. Accompanying these paintings are a group of vibrant new soft sculptures. Kusama doesn’t like to explain the meaning behind her works – she prefers that people experience them in their own way. As always, her works are inspired by a unique vision of the world, and are evident of an extraordinary creative drive that has propelled her for seven decades.

For more than five decades, she has crafted sculptural illusions of light and mirrors to replicate a sense of infinity. How will visitors to this exhibition be able to experience this? How immersive will the experience be?

This exhibition aims to focus on the immersive and expansive nature of Kusama’s practice. This ranges from her infinity net paintings, which fill the canvas with tiny swirls of paint that look like latticework, to her room-scale installations and mirror rooms. In each case, you are transported into a world that is deeply intimate as well as potentially boundless. We will be presenting several of Kusama’s iconic infinity mirror rooms, including Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008). She has been creating these works since the 1965; she fills a small room with repeated objects that are then reflected to infinity using mirrors on each wall. They create a sense of endless space, and are a truly magical experience that make you feel as though you have become a part of Kusama’s personal universe.

Which work speaks to you personally, and why?

Narcissus Garden. It is one of the first Kusama installations I ever saw, at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2002. Narcissus Garden is a work she first made and presented “unofficially” in 1966 in the grounds of the Venice Biennale. It consists of 1,500 silver balls placed on the ground, which creates a stunning vision of repetition and reflection. She performed with the work by selling the balls to passers-by, which posed a challenge to the art world at the time. In recent years, it has been presented in many different locations, both outdoors and indoors, sometimes even on water. For this exhibition, we will be re-staging Narcissus Garden in a very significant room at the Gallery, the City Hall Chamber, where the silver balls will fill the floor and reflect their historic surroundings.

This article first appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of L'Officiel Singapore (out now on Magzter and newsstands). Click here to subscribe.

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