Saturday, 18 February 2012

Apocalypse before…

There was an interesting discussion on twitter this morning, sparked by the inimitable @bebejax, regarding the definitions of modern and contemporary art. This did lead to one wag suggesting that owing to its age and content, the @Tate should henceforth be known as Tate Modern & Contemporary. That'll go down well.
To be honest, I really didn't fully follow any of this, as the range of art since the 1970s (start of contemporary art apparently) has been astonishing in breadth and I hardly felt one could say it's contemporary when it's changed so often.
Anyway. With this in mind we skipped off to Tate Modern (& Contemporary, obvs) to visit the Yayoi Kusama exhibition as, well, it was on.
I really didn't know what to expect, so was a teensy bit surprised by the most enormous spotted red balls. Ever. Interesting.
But not as interesting as what I saw as I walked through the first door. Whilst my art junkie partner had disappeared, I was trapped by a single piece entitled "Lingering Dream" (1949). Dream it was not. Searing nightmare would have been much closer to the mark. Before me was presented a desolate landscape with painfully twisting enraged growths of something or other. True food of nightmares. The dream you actually want to end. I was driven to write:

Drifting in half light
Of a Lingering dream
Bleak desolation
Roots twisting and scream
Clawing at memories
Jarring the soul
Darkened perception
Terrified toll

It wasn't until much later that the penny was not so much dropped as thrown to me, and I realised this image could easily be applied to the horrors of apocalyptic events of 1945 in Japan. Pure speculation on my part, true, but given the starkness coupled with the twisted matter and tiniest surviving green butterflies of recovery, I cannot help but think this suddenly makes the image make sense. And not simply be an image of escape from a darkened dream.
Whatever the inspiration of Kusama san, it is an unforgettable, profound, image.
Moving on. I didn't get terribly far before being snared by "Dawn" (1954). A startling piece of chaos, noise, connections, nonsense and a feeling of confusion. It felt perfectly named, capturing those moments in first light when you feel neither awake nor asleep. Ideas sparking against memories. Feelings rubbing their cosy self against concerns. And getting a slap for their trouble.
It was pretty dark. And I do dark.
Needless to say, it was also a piece I felt was being ignored by many because of the more acceptable pieces on display, a true pity. The upside to this is that it meant I could write as I stood taking in the emotions of the image:
Shattered connections
Of thoughts in the Dawn
Glimmers combine
Ideas born
Pulling the concious
Through turmoil dreams
Twisting and settled
Distortedly deemed
After those two pieces, the rest of Kusama san's early work paled by comparison. It's not that they were bad, rather simply that the impact of those pieces had numbed my mind to anything darker.
Oddly enough, this ties in directly with a conversation I had yesterday with @BoudoirOfCake regarding the numbing effect of too much art in one place. Once you have seen something that has moved you, it is simply impossible to absorb more in that context.
Which is why the sudden context change between rooms was both needed and refreshing.
Interestingly the change also reflected her own change in style. I'd never heard of the Infinity Net paintings, but was certainly calmed by the gentle, imperfect, repetition of a single shape. Whether this was, as indicated, a response to abstract expressionism, I have no idea. But I did feel this was the vision and labour of a truly obsessed mind.
Driven, obsession
Passions abound
Detailed, torrid
Thoughts unfound
Tying the first
As the last is drawn
Creating a hide
Imperfectly torn
As we moved on we switched context again. We entered her Accumulation sculptures period. What a truly fabulous name. Now don't get me wrong, I was very impressed by the effect of thousands of painted, phallus like, objects appearing on every surface, but it was something much simpler that really caught my eye. The first was called "Accumulation  no 18a", normally on display at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the second "Accumulation of Spaces (No B.T.)" from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
These pieces were supremely simply, one made with punched hole reinforcing rings, the other, simple stickers. Both look utterly rubbish when viewed at the respective links above. But the effect of these insanely simple images was quite mesmerising. As @clareangela put it, "this shows the limiting factor of online catalogues for art", simply, they don't show just how good some things are.
And this was perfectly demonstrated by "I'm Here, but Nothing".
A room-sized installation using fluorescent stickers lit by ultraviolet light. The effect was quite insane. I was amazed. Starkly so. Reading the exhibition booklet I read all sorts of interesting explanations regarding what the visual shorthand of the dots may mean. Honestly, I don't care, it was one of the most amazing effects I've seen in some time and I was very glad to have been able to spend some time in there feeling slightly surreal. The image here can't do it justice. And it's worth seeing this alone...
Actually. There was one other thing that was worth seeing. But before we get to that, we got to see some of her more recent paintings. Now these were all very... Commercial. This was yet another shocking change.
It was as if the chaos and pain that showed through so much in the earlier works had mellowed with time and she had reached a happy place. The effect was almost jarring, as if we'd walked in to another exhibition. And where "Dawn" would give nightmares most of these would look quite pleasant in any modern apartment.
Oh. Contemporary then. Pfft.
So finally, the last room installation and the way out. The "Infinity Mirrored room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life". So a room with opposing mirrors and lots of lights that changed colour. Which does nothing to describe how amazing this effect truly is. Almost without exception, there were gasps from the patiently queuing viewers. It was worth seeing this and experiencing a simple optical effect that was executed with sublime perfection.
I was impressed.  Really impressed.
So what did I learn?
Well. I have no thoughts on the whole shift from modern to contemporary art. Even though Kusama does cover both eras. If anything I saw a single artist with fourteen distinct phases, not that I've covered them all. Starting with the stark, terrifying, post apocalyptic imagery of her earliest work, passing the amusing insanity of accumulated sculptures before finally resting with calm, commercial, works of art that wouldn't look too out of place in a chic boutique hotel.
It does make me think that labels applied to art are about as practical and reliable as those applied to people. They have a use, but don't really hold up to the reality of comparing two utterly disparate but, apparently, similar works given the classification.
So I don't know. I really did love the exhibition though.
The Yayoi Kusama exhibition is on at Tate Modern until the 5th of June 2012, do yourself a favour and see it.