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Half-way through a crowded talk at Chelsea’s David Zwirner gallery last week, Yayoi Kusama broke into song. Throughout the discussion, the Japanese artist had emphasized (through a translator) that she was “making art to spread the joy and the love,” and her singing seemed to be a jarring gesture to prove that. It was an opportunity for Kusama to introduce her new exhibition, “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven,” to the masses, and, clad in her trademark vermilion wig and a look of piercing intensity, it was clear the octogenarian had the art world gripped.
The show introduces 27 new large-scale paintings, a video installation, and not one, but two, of her famed mirrored rooms, one of which has been made especially for the space. It is rare for Zwirner to dedicate his three consecutive locations to one single artist, however Kusama has been having somewhat of a renaissance and it would be misguided not to shroud the artist in various shades of celebrity. After all, when Kusama first arrived in the US, in 1957, she aspired to procure a Warholian level of fame. Within a decade she had established herself as an avant-garde forerunner of ‘60s New York, painting polka dots on naked models and staging her infamous “peep shows.”
However, Kusama’s unrivalled productivity has left her at the mercy of her art. She arrived at the preview in a wheelchair, citing the long hours spent on her feet painting as the reason. The exhibition is a means for Kusama, now aged 86, to explore the latter years of her life through technicolor paintings and exquisite installations, while also touching upon her fragile mental health. Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010 – present) is a recent video projection depicting the artist performing a song she wrote in front of an animated backdrop. The title, taken from her semi-autobiographical book published in 1978, references a suicide attempt made by Kusama when she tried to jump out of a window in New York. The incident ultimately led to the artist’s return to Japan and her long-term self-commitment to a mental institution, where she still lives.
“I’m here today from that institution… I think I will be able to, in the end, rise above the clouds and climb the stairs to heaven, and I will look down on my beautiful life,” said Kusama.
Two mirrored rooms, Love Is Calling (2013) and Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), shed light on Kusama’s concepts of life and death through endlessness, repetition and vibrant color. And, as with her 2012 show at the Whitney – where crowds were tempted in by red-and-white polka-dot beach balls hanging in the museum’s windows – the installations are the real stars. Even at the preview, lines weaved their way through the gallery space as people waited for their moment in Kusama’s glittering enclave, or at least, depressingly, to take a decent Instagram.
Her new paintings, like the installations, are filled with repetition. Eye motifs appear throughout, along with lion’s faces, fish, and human profiles. The style is characteristically wild, with intense colors and child-like forms evoking the joy and wonder that Kusama strives to communicate.
However, it’s the mirrored rooms that steal the show, partly because they so perfectly encapsulate Kusama’s message of optimism. Kusama does not shy away from her mortality; instead she confronts it. “Now as I approach death,” she said, “I’m still full of big hope that we all have the power to spread love and peace, and I can do so with my work.”
“I Who Have Arrived in Heaven” is on view through December 21, at David Zwirner Gallery.