Fully on Brand: Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro

Yayoi Kusama just closed at Victoria Miro, London, on 21 December 2011. Since its opening in early October, the exhibition has been a success, with tickets selling out soon after the opening. For this reason, when I first visited the exhibition in mid-November, I was genuinely excited about the works on show, which included all the amenities Kusama is renowned for: the polka-dots paintings, the pumpkin sculptures, and even one of her infinity rooms. I literally entered the exhibition through its backdoor, thanks to a friend, a London-based artist whom I would like to thank for this exceptional experience. Now, I am here to report my first impressions and thoughts. What I am going to describe is, first and foremost, an impressive tribute to a brand, Kusama’s own artistic trademark.

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The show benefits from Victoria Miro’s premiere London location. The works are scattered across three spaces plus an outdoor area. The first room contains a variety of small-size polka-dots painting in vibrant colours, which complement a series of Kusama’s famous pumpkin sculptures. Like the flower installations in the gallery’s backyard, they are made of painted bronze and the shiny surface makes them look glossy and juicy. The visual impact is impeccable and the same applies to the large upstairs exhibition room, which is occupied by three rows of large polka-dots canvasses. The space feels monumental, with large windows looking over the roofs of London, while Kusama’s bold fluorescent creations provide a gag-worthy, Instagram-friendly backdrop. The result is simply beautiful and focuses on the artist’s strong points in later years.

The exhibition’s showstopper is located in a separate area, where people can queue to access one of Kusama’s celebrated infinity rooms. When I arrive, the waiting time is about thirty minutes; people are allowed to enter in groups of two and stay for no more than one minute. The infinity rooms are psychedelic ensembles of paper sculptures, which are reflected by mirror walls to create a seemingly endless illusion. For the Victoria Miro show, the space is decorated with colourful spherical lanterns. Inside it is dark and we are asked to follow a path to move from one side of the room to the opposite. Just as the rest of the show, the space proves to be a perfect setting for a sneak picture (you just need to look for #infinityroom on Instagram to see how catchy and attractive the subject is, a great publicity stunt for any exhibition).

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When Yayoi Kusama first arrived in New York in 1958, she became known for her involvement in the happening scene, with performances such as Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street mixing anti-war sentiments with elements borrowed from the sexual liberation movement. However, in her later works, of which the Victoria Miro show is an epitome, her groundbreaking politicised attitude fades into the background. What is left is the colourful abstraction of her installations, whose growing size is made possible by Kusama’s economic success. The artist displayed a savvy attitude over the years, collaborating with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton to pitch her distinctive style to different audiences.

When one thinks of the “typical” Kusama works of art, the Victoria Miro show comes to mind. This is no coincidence: the Kusama brand is not only embodied by this exhibition, it is willingly evoked as part of a joyful and successful marketing operation. While the event sold out very quickly, the works’ colourful pictures will resonate through the Instagram feeds of millions of viewers for weeks after the closing. As suggested by Michael Goldhaber in a 1997 Wired article (“Attention Shoppers”) we are quickly moving toward an economic model where the public’s attention is the real currency, changing the dynamics of the object-obsessed art market. At Victoria Miro, I saw this transformation happening before my eyes.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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