Face fringe-framed by a watermelon coloured wig.
Multi-coloured clothes spotted as a Dalmatian’s coat. A penetrating stare above painted red lips. The only thing that outshines Yayoi Kusama, the grand dame of the contemporary art world, is the rainbow brightness of her own work. In photographs it all but consumes her. This blending of art and artist is no coincidence. When she is not sleeping in the psychiatric clinic she checked herself into in 1975, almost every hour of every single day is spent painting in nearby studios. High-octane and delirious, the fruits of her labour spent the summer on view across Victoria Miro’s three London sites in the largest display of her work seen in the capital since her 2012 retrospective at the Tate Modern. At 87 she has refuelled the tank and set the satnav to the furthest galaxy.
First stop: infinity. More specifically, the infinity rooms – three of which inhabited the colossal space on Wharf Road. If Kusama’s life’s work has been dedicated to the disassembling of identity, these rooms epitomize the allure of alienation. They have a reputation that precedes them so there were queues. Worth it though; each of the differently themed mirrored spaces – Chandelier Of Grief, Where the Lights in My Heart Go and All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins – are something to experience. No selfie will do it justice, not that that stopped anyone spending the allocated 30 seconds inside trying to get a good one.
These microcosms that you stoop to get into become effervescent macrocosms once the door closes behind you. It is an entirely immersive, otherworldly experience, akin to experiencing the most beautiful acid trip you could never have imagined. It is a brief flash of a cosmos with no end; a milky way filled with giant glittering molecules. There are luminous pumpkins here, rotating chandeliers there. The only anomaly is the vision of yourself reverberating around the kaleidoscope, continually reminding you that there you are, not so other-worldly, in your jeans and t-shirt, holding your iPhone in the air (and slightly killing the romance).
Having stood in separate queues for each infinity room – which is not all bad, since in the gallery with the longest wait you got to feast on three of her trademark, super-sized pumpkin sculptures – you are desperate to escape the crowds. For this, on the top floor reside the infinity paintings in a spacious, air-bright setting. On your way up you pass the garden terrace with the silver mirror balls floating on the water. This is Narcissus Garden, a work originating from 1966 when Kusama first – albeit unofficially – participated in the Venice Biennale. This work, which she describes as a ‘kinetic carpet,’ has taken up permanent residence at Victoria Miro since 2002 (possibly because the pond is so carpeted with algae that an alternative pathway to one’s reflection needed to be devised).
Upstairs the themes of obsessive repetition, self-obliteration and the sublime are carried through in this series of monochromatic, web-like paintings. Comprised of dots that loop and weave their way across an under-wash of paint, a cloud-like blanket hovers. Kusama first began painting the Infinity Nets over half a century ago and returns to them periodically. They are a cornerstone of her mythology; a physical extortion of the hallucinations she has suffered from since childhood.
New paintings from her series, My Eternal Soul, occupied the Mayfair site. Here is Kusama at her most urgent and direct. Each work throbs with the energy of an artist determined to recreate afresh. Painted in a trance-like state, they burst with flamboyant colours and playful detail – sunshine faces, fish scales, evil eyes. The titles, among them Shedding Tears to the Season, I Will Still Go On Living and Dying People, indicate a preoccupation with mortality; an underlying force, perhaps, for an artist still busy charting unexplored territory.
‘I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland,’ she once said. And not for the first time, the enigmatic artist invites us into a magical world that is impossible to forget. Unpredictable, undiminished and trailblazing through her ninth decade; we stand in awe and anticipation.