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Above: With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever (2013) is a loopy, laughter-inducing room filled with dots and giant tulips. Though much of Yayoi Kusama's art evokes joy, the artist's own life was riddled with mental illness.

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One of the show's last rooms is filled with recent paintings and sculptures. Their bright, happy colours and defined form suggest either a joy and satisfaction the artist, now 88, has belatedly found - or else a resignation to creating pure pop design works to sell to rich clients.

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Kusama's famous pumpkin-inspired motifs infect a room, at the centre of which the viewer can see a seemingly infinite arrangement of pumpkin sculptures.

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Kusama’s Self Portrait (1952) shows a single eye floating in a biomorph of dots, an allusion to how the mentally-ill artist sees the world.

The strange, obsessive world of Yayoi Kusama

National Gallery Singapore may have its first blockbuster show with its impressive Kusama survey.
Jun 9, 2017 5:50 AM

JUDGING by the unusually large size of the local and international press attending the preview, as well as the queue for the merchandise at the gallery shop after that, National Gallery Singapore may just have its first blockbuster exhibition with Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow.

When Kusama showed up in Washington DC and Tokyo earlier this year, visitors during the opening week had to queue for more than an hour to get in. National Gallery Singapore is expecting crowds as well, introducing timed ticketing (you purchase a ticket for a specific time to enter the gallery) to avoid congestion.

But enough of the hype - what about the art? The not-so-short answer is: it's good and fun on the surface, but heart-rending on prolonged viewing.

Now 88, Kusama has attained the status of being one of the most famous artists in the world. Her repetitive dots, webs, stitches and other motifs adorn not just canvases and installation, but also designer clothes, bags, cutlery, trinkets and even one weirdly trippy Penguin publication of Alice In Wonderland.

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In our image-suffused world, she is also one of the most Instagrammable. #yayoikusama has 378,772 posts at press time - more than #damienhirst and #jeffkoons combined. (After all, how can you go wrong posing against a bright happy swirl of dots?)

However, much of it masks a career riddled with both critical praise and drubbing, dire financial straits, struggles with the elite and the patriarchy, existential anguish and, most of all, mental illness. If one knows anything about Kusama, one knows that the dots stem from her chronic hallucinations - she sees dots all around her, and took to painting them as a way of coping.

The first artworks shown in Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow suggest this. The small gouaches she painted in her early 20s are profoundly disturbing, often depicting abstract shapes and figures against murky dark backgrounds, covered in dots.

Her own Self Portrait (1952) shows a single eye floating in a biomorph of dots, an allusion to how the mentally-ill artist sees the world.

These gouaches lead immediately to much larger and more recent works, mostly created at a mental hospital she's voluntarily lived at since 1977. These massive canvases are filled with obsessive small strokes such that they appear like "infinity nets" that threaten to engulf you. They simulate Kusama's own hallucinatory experiences when she stares at patterned fabric.

Curated by Russell Storer, Adele Tan and Reuben Keehan, the show continues on in two more galleries where there are clearer delineations of the specific periods of her career. Snap-happy Instagrammers might go wild over the Infinity Mirrored Room (2008) - a lights-filled mirrored room that gives the impression of infinite space - as well as With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever (2013), a loopy, laughter-inducing room filled with dots and giant tulips.

More serious art lovers would enjoy a terrific section (which could have been bigger) of her particularly fearless years of making performance art in New York, where she and fellow performers painted dots on their sometimes naked bodies and railed against power, money and class. These works have an urgency and frisson that more recent works don't.

One of the last rooms is filled with paintings and sculptures made since 2009. Their bright, happy colours and defined forms suggest either a joy and satisfaction the artist has belatedly found - or else a resignation to creating pure pop design works to sell to rich clients. The show culminates in a spectacular large-scale installation titled Narcissus Garden made of 1,500 reflective stainless steel balls.

In an e-mail interview with the artist recently, Kusama tells The Business Times: "Over the years of dedication and struggling, I have aged. But I am willing to continue this path and do my best to create art to leave the message of 'love forever' to the young generations.

"Since childhood I had a strong will of becoming an artist and worked very hard to create paintings and sculptures. I was motivated by the hopes to deliver the message of my life through exhibiting my art.

"Today, the world is threatened by terrorism and war. So many people suffer from widening disparity between the rich and the poor. I am moved that the younger generations are sincere to themselves, trying to create a world of warmth for peace and for those who suffer. I stake my life on my art to deepen people's hope for their lives and for world peace and distribution of love."

Without a doubt, Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow is the must-see of the moment. It's a survey that compares favourably to others in the world, such as David Hockney's recent one at Tate Britain.

If you prefer to look at the art when there are fewer visitors around, wait until after the June school holidays.

  • Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow opens on June 9 and runs till Sept 3, 2017 at National Gallery Singapore