Yayoi Kusama's early works shine in a heritage theatre in Kyoto, Japan

  • Asia & Oceania
  • Sunday, 15 Oct 2017

Yayoi Kusamas A Boat Carrying My Soul (mixed media, 1989). The work was created by attaching countless fabric protrusions to an ordinary rowboat. - Daryl Goh/The Star

There is no shortage of Yayoi Kusama exhibitions. The legendary Japanese avant garde artist is everywhere – just follow her polka dot trail. For Yayoi, the year has been as sweet as pumpkin pie, with her Infinity Mirrors show at Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC in the United States considered one of the year’s best exhibitions, while her Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow show at the National Gallery Singapore was the talk of the region.

Yet the 88-year-old artist isn’t slowing down any time soon.

The Yayoi Kusama Museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, which officially opened Oct 1, only adds to the frenzy.

Tickets for the museum’s inaugural exhibition Creation Is A Solitary Pursuit, Love Is What Brings You Closer To Art have already sold out through November. And it must be remembered that the Yayoi Kusama Museum permits visitors daily on timed entry slots.

However, if you prefer to skip the queueing and want a leisurely, more intimate survey of Yayoi’s career, the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art (FMOCA) in Kyoto might just be the place. The private gallery, is currently hosting Yayoi’s My Soul Forever show, which ends next February.

Yayoi Kusama
The My Soul Forever exhibition area is an intimate space, and the public can also sit on tatami mats to view the works. Pictured is one of Yayoi’s important works called Yellow Trees (1992).

Yayoi’s giant Pumpkin (2007), an outdoor installation, is the only hint that there is an exhibition about. No large billboards in sight. For art-loving visitors, a museum tucked in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, is a welcome sight.

“Our (Yayoi) collection started approximately 40 years ago with my father Makoto Hozumi (founder of Medical Corporation Junkei-kai), who wanted to give patients a healing environment by introducing art into the medical field, like waiting rooms, day rooms and patient wards,” says Hisashi Hozumi, director of FMOCA, which opened earlier this year.

FMOCA has over 700 works of art now in its permanent collection (Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Long, Tatsuo Miyajima and Oscar Oiwa), of which 60% are pieces by Yayoi. The veteran artist worked together with the museum to build the FMOCA Yayoi Kusama collection, with a focus on the 1990s.

“When I became director of the hospital 30 years ago, I introduced the concept of ‘works that are suitable for future exhibiting in an art museum’ and revised the collection method with advice from (art) professionals,” he adds.

Yayoi Kusama
One of Yayoi’s early works as a painter, called The Stalk No.4 (watercolour on paper, 1952), is based on plant motifs.

The museum, located inside the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre’s Yasaka Club, a well-known hub of traditional Japanese culture since 1913, looks fairly discreet and serene, with its charming traditional frontage intact. A lush Japanese garden by the museum is an inviting bonus.

Tradition also needs to observed in these quaint quarters. There is a need to remove your shoes at the museum entrance, and the tatami mat flooring in the exhibition rooms ensure you tread softly, or sit comfortably, while viewing the artworks. The experience, admittedly, is a novel one.

Photography is also restricted, so that is good news for those adverse to selfie junkies.

The My Soul Forever exhibition, divided into four exhibition rooms, is devoid of infinity mirrors, polka dot rooms and balloons. Even the Yayoi paintings aren’t imposingly sized. Instead what you find is a sampling of her early painterly art right to her avant garde New York-era and return to Japan. In fact, Yayoi studied painting in Kyoto before moving to New York in the late 1950s.

By the mid-1960s she had become well known in the art world for her provocative happenings and exhibitions. For almost 70 years, she has been pushing the boundaries of art. This My Soul Forever show, for lack of a better description, feels soulful, even personal, by nature.

At this exhibition, there is no need for rushing. There is more than enough time for a Yayoi rewind, with five watercolour paintings marking her starting point. The works, dating 1950 to 1952, are based on plant motifs, all of them contain circles or dots of some kind. The exhibition, in essence, attempts to form an overview of how Yayoi’s signature dots were born and how they evolved.

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi's installation A Boat Carrying My Soul (1989), made from actual fabric attached to a rowboat.

As you tour the gallery, key works like Light From The Ends Of The Earth (oil on canvas, 1950) and the New York-era Infinity Nets (oil on canvas, 1963) are exhibits not to be missed. Other highlights include Mt Fuji In Seven Colors – Orange (woodcut print, 2015), a fairly recent and vibrant addition, and the spiritual-minded installation A Boat Carrying My Soul (1989), made from actual fabric attached to a rowboat.

Yayoi’s Yellow Trees (1992), which was shown at the My Eternal Soul exhibition at the National Art Centre in Tokyo, is the central exhibit here. It is viewed as one of her classics done with plant motifs. Not to forget a series of dots leading the viewer through winding paths and limitless circles. Will you ever reach your destination through these twisting trees? That’s the million dollar question.

FMOCA’s collection also includes 352 of Yayoi’s screenprint works (not including Love Forever), a substantial amount of the pieces she produced in this medium. My Soul Forever showcases nearly 50 of her screenprints, going back to the late 1970s.

Taken as a whole, this My Soul Forever exhibition, despite its modest size (dots and all), gives us a calmer overview of a trailblazing artist.

No glowing pumpkins, no worries.

My Soul Forever is on at Forever Museum of Contemporary Art, Gion, Kyoto in Japan till Feb 25, 2018. Go to fmoca.jp. This trip was made possible by the Japan Foundation.

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