Yayoi Kusama review – about as artistic as a lava lamp

Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Her mirror installation will inspire selfies – but if she’s the greatest artist of our time, it doesn’t say much for our time

Visitors who secure precious tickets to stand inside Yayoi Kusama’s new installation will get, I was told, around a minute in this dark mirrored space where spherical lanterns appear to proliferate into infinity, their colours changing in psychedelic sync. It’s enough time to take a selfie – and what else does anyone want from art these days? Abstraction was once a desperately serious pursuit of the ineffable. Veteran art hero Kusama turns it into shallow instant beauty that’s as fun as a fizzy drink and about as nourishing.

I had as long as I liked inside Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart Is Dancing into the Universe and I was as blissed out as the next idiot. It helped that I’d watched the Marvel film Doctor Strange the night before and felt like I’d become Benedict Cumberbatch in a cloak, floating in some hippy cosmos where the stars kept changing colours.

If Marvel Studios ever create a theme park, a Kusama installation would be a great way to let fans experience cosmic delirium. Yet, just as I can’t quite believe in Doctor Strange, I can’t take this installation too seriously. It is, in fact, very easy on the mind. It’s not like James Turrell’s lightworks and Bridget Riley’s paintings that reach inside your head and rearrange the fabric of perception, or the Rothko room at Tate Modern that sucks your soul out through your eyes. It is, rather, on about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps: great to chill out to but scarcely a harrowing of the soul.

If Kusama is, as admirers claim, one of the great artists of our time, it doesn’t say much for our time. At least her mirrored mini-universe of hypnotically modulating colours has a sense of spectacle. The rest of the exhibition had me wondering how anyone can take this stuff seriously. It is more like a fashion show – or a setting for one – than art. Everything feels very neatly branded.

Items from the Kusama production line ... a pumpkin sculpture at the Victoria Miro gallery.
Items from the Kusama production line ... a pumpkin sculpture at the Victoria Miro gallery. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen

There’s a room full of painted and sculpted pumpkins. They are all done in the Kusama idiom with big bold dots mapping their plump contours. Funny? Cute? Or an intense spiritual meditation on nature, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers? I was more struck by the almost mechanistic nature of these images, as if they came off a Kusama production line. The variations in shape and colour are no more heartfelt than a choice of what colour rug or lampshade you want. And, with the art fair season upon us, it is not hard to imagine collectors choosing their pumpkins in exactly this way – do you think the green one will match the basement pool?

No one buys or reveres contemporary art just because it’s beautiful, and Kusama’s works claim a darker side. Beyond the brightness is obsession and dread. Two paintings here come from a series that is called Dots Obsession, so you can have it in your collection in the happy knowledge that its prettiness arises out of pain. The huge painted metal flowers in the garden are presumably also meant to be powerfully obsessive, but they just look like jaunty images of nature from a children’s book. One with a somewhat patronising opinion of children.

Only in a final upstairs gallery do Kusama’s paintings begin to summon up inner worlds that feel a little more authentic. Staring eyes and microscopic life forms populate paintings with a deceptive brightness and a raw graffiti feel. Still, even these bacteria swarming out of the unconscious aren’t going to hurt anyone. They will never escape the fabulous multicoloured playground that is the Kusama universe.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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