(Revised 6 September 2009)
I visited Brisbane for a commercial purpose but went down to the Queensland Art Gallery as well, mainly to see the exhibition Mountains and Streams, since I am taking an interest in Chinese Art at the moment by attending the lectures Literature and Legend at the Sydney gallery. The lectures on Chinese Art are part of series which moves on to Japanese Art later. I thought the Chinese lectures would be a useful prelude to the Japanese ones but despite their variable quality I found much interested in the history, art, and literature discussed. I found I had seen Mountains and Streams previously at the NGV in Melbourne where it originated but had almost no memory of it, attributable, I think, to my complete ignorance of Chinese art when I first saw it. So I saw it again with a little more insight.
But the highlight of my visit to the Queensland gallery was my discovery of Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist whose installation, Narcissus Garden, is a striking feature of the gallery itself. The Queensland gallery is new. I found it to be a splendid large and open space very well designed for the display of painting and sculpture.
The installation by Yayoi Kusama is a version of a work which she first showed in 1966 at the Venice Biennale; or rather outside it, since she had not been invited. It was a very effective action and brought attention not only to herself but also to the way in which official displays of modern and inventive art soon become as ossified and bureaucratic as anything else. At the Biennale Kusama first offered the individual mirror balls for sale at $2. When she was somehow prohibited from doing this she gave out leaflets praising her own work.
Other versions of this work have appeared in the Serpentine in London and the small boat lake in Central Park, NYC. From photographs, it seems that the mirror balls were set out on the grass when they first appeared at Venice but subsequently floating in water. The essence of the installation is the reflective balls themselves. It looks from photographs as if their surroundings at Brisbane have changed a little from time to time; and in other places they seem to be out of reach and more clumped together in the waters and lakes in which they are floating.
In Brisbane the accumulation of balls looks simple and elegant and attracts attention by the constant movement helped along by the notices calling for them to be touched gently.
I find that Kusama has been an influential artist for 50 years. She was born in Matsumoto in 1929 and traveled from Japan to the USA in 1958. She was soon in New York where she was active in painting, sculpture and the organization of happenings for some years. She was therefore involved in making installations and other similar works when the concept was truly innovative and she was able to work with originality and flair. It may still be possible to do this, but the passage of time has made so many of such things seem mundane and derivative.
Although not apparent in Narcissus Garden, Kusama has described her work as emerging from her mental illness: she says has had hallucinations since she was a child. She also says that her ability to produce artistic works is a therapy for her.
Kusama often appears in photographs of her work. In a picture of the installation at Venice she is seen lying on the ground amongst the metallic balls in a red jumpsuit. In more recent photographs she poses staring intently at the camera. I wonder about the border between mental illness and self promotion.
Or could it be a characteristic of Japanese artists who move to the west. I am reminded of the self portraits of Fujita staring languidly from the picture; and of his self promotional antics in Paris in the 1920s.
And I can now add Masami Teraoka whom I discovered in Melbourne even more recently. His MacDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan / self portrait shows the same trait:
And so it was that in late May 2008, I made my way to Matsumoto, taking the super wide Shinano via Tsumago/Nagiso. I enjoyed my brief visit to Matsumoto. I missed a special retrospective exhibition of Kusama's work by only a week or so. However, as Matsumoto is her home town, the Matsumoto City Museum of Art maintains a permanent exhibition of her work. In fact, her Visionary Flowers (2002) dominates the front of the building; I imagine it was made for the site as the museum opened in that year.
There is also a chair and a drink machine.
The display inside was dominated by walk though rooms or installations with mirrors and other special effects. I was the only person in the gallery and was able to enjoy some of the illusions without interruption. The exhibition included some of Kusama's early work, completed prior to her departure for the USA in the late 1950's. The quality of these mainly figurative pictures was impressive. Her later more innovative work was produced on a firm foundation. She is a true innovator: her style developed in the late fifties and sixties; but she denies the influence of modernist movements on her work:
" I had nothing to do with Surrealism, I painted only as I wished"
"...I am not concerned with Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, or whatever, I am absorbed in living my life."
( Interview in Yayoi Kusama, Phaidon,2000, at 10 & 16.)
In June 2008, I returned to Brisbane and the gallery there:
Narcissus Garden had vanished. I made some enquiries and found that it had been taken down only few days after I saw it.
Then in 2009, there was an excellent exhibition of Kusama's work in the Museum of Modern Art, Sydney. No Narcissus Garden but some mirrored balls were lying about. This show also included some walk in mirrored rooms. I did not have them to myself here however. There was a queue for entry to one of the rooms, to which viewers were admitted a few at a time for a minute or so. This exhibiton had a public face with Kusama banners and hoardings all around the city. The exhibition is closed but some of these remain to remind us...