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Art Review: Kusama Yayoi’s A Dream I Dreamed

Kusama Yayoi's retrospective opened this weekend at MoCA. We went down and found, to no one's surprise, lots and lots of spots and dots.
Dec 16, 2013 | 15:13 Mon

As exhibition titles go, A Dream I Dreamed over at MoCA seems pretty apt. Think a ladder climbing up, up, up into the sky like an LED-clad upgrade of Jack’s beanstalk; giant pumpkins set against leafy People’s Park; or stooping through the curtained entrance of a cartoon-bright bubble, only to emerge into a confusingly square-shaped, mirrored room. Like a rainbow-colored reverie, Kusama Yayoi’s world is surreal, fantastical and a lot of fun.

At the grand old age of 84, Kusama Yayoi is the world’s highest-paid living female artist, and certainly one of the most prolific. Active for the past six decades and still creating today, her work spans a remarkable diversity including fashion, literature, sculpture, film, installation and more. Best-known for her signature polka-dot paintings, last year the Japanese doyenne lent her inimitable style to a refreshingly quirky collection for luxury brand, Louis Vuitton. In short, she’s pretty a big deal.

And, judging by a short documentary created especially for MoCA’s show, she’s also just a really nice – if very hard-working – lady. The short sees her explain how, if her art spreads love, peace and happiness, she considers her life to have purpose. That even extends to an apology and request for forgiveness for the “suffering in other Asian countries” at the hands of the Japanese military… That’s as political as the exhibition gets, and more generally, it’s a fantastical, techno-colored romp through 100 or so of Kusama’s works from the past 60 years.

The sole China-side stop on the exhibition’s pan-Asia tour, MoCA presents a perfect fit for an exhibition of this range. In something of a Kusama makeover, that central, circular gallery has been transformed, courtesy of a series of red and white polka-dot "balloons", both suspended from the ceiling and resting on the museum floor. Minnie-Mouse-inspired beach balls meet Super Mario’s Toad. In keeping with the strange and wonderful tone of this impressive show, some are portals to yet more fantastical landscapes within…

The biggest of the bunch opens into that strange mirrored room, itself strewn with yet more balloons and reminiscent of what would happen if you built a disco inside a circus big-top. Elsewhere, one of the show’s most magical installations, "Infinity Mirrored Room", sees a deceptively tiny space (there’s only room for four people at a time) open into an endless constellation of lights to captivating – not to mention festive – effect.

Upstairs are yet more spots and several sculptural objects – a series of cartoony dogs, those towering pumpkins, and favorite of the bunch, "With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever". Positioned inside a bright white room liberally scattered with those all-pervading polka-dots, the work comprises two massive fiberglass flowers, seemingly paused mid-boogie.

Also on this floor are those signature Dot and Net paintings that shot Kusama to fame. Like so much on show here, they’re deceptively simple: viewed up close, it’s all texture you’ll want to touch (don’t, obviously), whilst stepping back presents an altogether more dizzying perspective of scalloped edges and clashing brights.

Head up one floor more for that insightful short film, a boat fashioned from sequined phallus-shaped objects, and a spotted UV-lit living room, "I’m Here, But Nothing". In a first for MoCA, the fourth-floor balcony space also forms part of the exhibition, courtesy of "Narcissus Garden", created for the 1993 Venice Biennale. Comprising a majority of the work’s total 1,500 football-sized silver globes, it’s essentially another rendition still of those ubiquitous polka-dots. Although the outdoor element certainly adds an extra dimension, unlike other pieces on show here, it fails to raise a smile. For views across People’s Park, though, it’s most definitely worth checking out.

On show through March 30, Kusama Yayoi: A Dream I Dreamed is definitely worth a visit. Tickets are a surprisingly pricey 50rmb – presumably to cover what looks to be a costly installation. What that buys you, though, is a good hour or so of the bizarre, the surreal and, most importantly, the fun.