I was curious to see whether the recently opened Yayoi Kasuma exhibition at the Tate Modern would live up to the hype and reputation that’s been building up. It absolutely did. Encountering Kasuma’s art a few years ago, through the Hayward’s Walking in my Mind show, I had no idea about the breadth of her portfolio or how much she has accomplished over her prolific career, lasting more than 60 years and spanning painting, collage, sculpture and immersive installation. It was truly astounding both in terms of the process and production but also her ability to reinvent herself and, by doing so, remain current and challenging.
The exhibition’s curation by Frances Morris and Rachel Taylor, offers a real insight into Kasuma’s huge body of work. Structured by methods and approaches dominating various periods of her life, it reveals important transitions and the profound impact these events had on her work – moving from Japan to America, establishing herself in the New York art scene of the 1960s-70s, the death of friend and artist Joseph Cornell, and her return to Japan where she now resides, choosing to voluntarily live within a psychiatric hospital.
Understanding these contexts, seems to me crucial in experiencing her artwork. Through the sequential narrative journey of her work and life, we discover an ambitious artist with an obsessive drive to produce. Despite shifts in scale, media and subjects, there is a continuity in the intensity of detail and repetitive nature of the production and experimentation.
The series of Infinity Net paintings are mind-bending when viewed up close – the skill, execution, and repetition of the mark-making in paint feels like it should be the product of a machine rather than a human hand.
Like much of her art, it’s haunting and unsettling but equally hypnotic. Perhaps the field of phalli – everyday objects covered in phallic-like fabric “sculptures” – ought to provoke a similarly uncomfortable feeling, yet somehow it seems too surreal and whimsical to feel aggressive or sexualised. It is startling but also brilliant. The multiplied forms take on new meaning, and the sheer number of them read as a bizarre landscape.
I was struck by how avant-garde her art must have been when first exhibited in the USA. Her early investigation of large-scale immersive environments would have been particularly provocative but still resonate today, with a renewed emphasis on all-encompassing experiential work. The last room is a real feast for the eyes (one to experience in person), and something that can be universally enjoyed.
I felt I got a glimpse into the inner world of Yayoi Kasuma; an intense, dream-like place full of colour and motion, that at times is overwhelming and disorientating.
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