Parque de Serralves, Porto

Contemporary Art Museum, casa (house) and parque (park), Porto, Portugal. September 2019

The central parterre, Serralves House and Gardens

The gardens of the Casa da Serralves, Porto, Portugal

The Museum was designed by Álvaro Siza (1999) and the park by Jaques Greber to complement the 1930s art deco style of Casa da Serralves.

Casa da Serralves, Porto, Portugal
Serralves, Porto
Serralves, Porto

Located a little ouside the city (R. Dom João de Castro 210, 4150-417 Porto), you can get a bus from close by the Igreja do Carmo – numbers 200, 201, or 207 buses – from Carmo, taking half an hour.

Serralves, Porto

The architecture of the Museum is collosal, and sculptural, in keeping with its function. With a blue-sky backdrop, and in contrast to the surrounding garden, it is seen to best effect.

Serralves, Porto

Time and again the buildings complement the landscape and vice versa.

Serralves, Porto
Serralves, Porto

Olafur Eliasson’s silver birches was the first artwork to be seen in the foyer. Lit by natural light from the window above and with eerie street-lamp, yellow man-made lighting, the trees are in water and yet dying. An effective statement on how climate affects nature, we walked through the ‘grove’ as we would the exhibits afterwards – trees as art?

Olaf Eliasson, Yellow Forest (2017)

The current exhibition, Voyage to the Beginning and Back, is a retrospective of 30 years of Serralves. From the little wood, we move into the galleries to Eliasson’s ‘Y/Our Future is Now’, consisting of horizontal metal spirals in a mirrored space where, once again, the outside, seen through the window, plays a large part.

Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017
Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017
Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017

When seen in the green, Eliasson’s work has both a grounded and spacey feel to it. Loops and swirls, suggestion of a treble clef and wonky infinity sign, they seem to dance and float, throwing glorious shadows on the lawn.

Olaf Eliasson,

Fitting three or more works to a room, and also showing in the house, there is a wide range of artists represented, from Sol le Witt to Simon Starling, Hamish Fulton, Andy Warhol and Lygia Pape.

Alberto Carneiro, O mar prolonga-se em cada um de nós (The Sea is Extended in Each One of Us) 1968/69
Alberto Carneiro, O mar prolonga-se em cada um de nós (The Sea is Extended in Each One of Us) 1968/69
Lygia Pape, Ttéia 1B (redonda) 1976/2000
Hamish Fulton, 43 day coast to coast walking the Douro River 2001
Simon Starling, The Pink Museum 2001
Claes Oldenburg, Colher de jardineiro (Plantoir) 2001

Dominating the junction between tree lined avenues, Oldenburg’s enormous, eye-catching red trowel teeters on its tip as if left by a random gardener. Here is the everyday tool assuming its true importance.

Thomas Schütte, Is There Life Before Death? 1998

Urns of ashes, posing as the art itself, again take centre stage: scattered around an empty room and catching the light, complementing the fixtures and fittings. Faced with what could be our final resting place, a snake may rise out of one, a genie from another if rubbed. Is now the time to take control of life before it ceremoniously ends?

Marijke van Warmerdam, Drop 2012
Marijke van Warmerdam, Drop 2012

You hear Drop before you grasp what is happening. Rounding the corner to be faced with stairs, a ping pong ball tap tap taps down the stairs in front of you as you stand at the top. In fact, there is nothing to be seen except the hanging speaker and members of the public who are descending before you. Echoing against the bare walls, the sound gently, humorously plays with your reality. The windows at the bottom of both flights add an underwater colour scheme which mimics the azulejo tiles of the garden’s pools (see above).

Olaf Eliasson, The Curious Vortex 2019
Olaf Eliasson, The Curious Vortex 2019
Richard Long,

The parting of the ways, of the biblical Red Sea, were suggested by this simple, stone installation. Its placement in front of the long windows, despite the parquet flooring, added an air of the outdoors, where Long’s work is so often situated: another example of the merging of inner and outer spaces.

Antoni Muntades, About the Public and the Private 1992

This red velvet topped performance area only allows the audience to see the feet of those inside. A TV screen beside the work, shows tango dancers dancing together on the circular, blue platform, the ankles and lower legs making it even sexier!

The Casa de Serralves
The gallery basement where the library (with its exhibition of artists’ books) and toilets can be found

Finally, the building itself, inside and out, is worth seeing, quite apart from the art.

Cast iron doorway, detail, Casa de Serralves
The fantastic stairway of the house library

Website

Estonian Art Galleries

MONA Museum of New Art, 10 Esplanaadi St. 80010, Pärnu.

Give A New Life, the 7th Recycling Art Exhibition

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Kristiina Tikke Tuura’s Hiiglase Latern

I saw this beautiful Giant’s Lantern by Kristiina Tuura, a Helsinki based artist who made this work from rubbish, recycled and found objects. It pays respect to the hundreds of years old tradition of skilful Syrian lantern making. Made with the help of school children and immigrant students.

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Kristiina Tikke Tuura’s Giant Lantern

Rule and Ritual, Exhibition of Estonian Textile Artists Union

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Tuuli Reinsoo, Nothing is Missing

In Tuli Reinsoo’s work, a giant soft jigsaw of colour, fabric and script, I was invited to Play! Mangi! to move the pieces around as I fancied and make a new art work as I did so. Nothing is ever missing, the blobs which fit into the corresponding holes are part of the outline and the spaces between the pieces are as much part of the transitory, ‘final’ work.

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Detail from Matilda Dominique’s The Grid / No Grid III using a large number of different wool yarn qualities, it moves between clarity and uncertainty. 
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Krista Leesi, Sometimes a herring is just a herring

The juxtaposition of fish swimming across the chest, pithy phrase emblazoned on T shirt harks back to Freud’s ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’, a sideways reference to his constant search for meaning in dreams (although some say he never said that!) At one and the same time we accept what is, and are prompted to look into what exactly a herring is in this context.

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Marilyn Piirsalu, The Same Pattern

This installation, using fabric and embroidery, comments on the indolence and habits of the TV watching public. Lounging and dozing while the images flower and grow on the sunseen screen.

Shadow and Light Exhibition and Kaadrid Frames, Pärnu Muuseum

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Outi Martikainen, Pietke

Martikainen (weaver) writes that what lies behind her work is her worry that too many children are having to face fear, violence and hunger and that they should all have the same rights to a safe and unique childhood. I found these tapestries poignant and, taken from photographs, life-like.

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Monika Žaltauskaitė-Grašienė, weaving of St Mary

In 2012, the church of St Virgin Mary, Kulautuva, Lithuania was all but destroyed by fire. Afterwards, however, statues of the Virgin and Christ were found ‘miraculously preserved’. Grasiene was touched by the smiling face of St Mary despite the tragedy and that set her to think about how we are left after terrible things have happened in our lives.

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Symbiosis, Kaisi Rosin and Kadri Nutt 

Mutually beneficial interacton between form (the furniture maker’s chair) and pattern. Comfy and utilitarian, also images of growth and shadow to sit on.

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‘Threads’. A recommissioned Jaquard loom – wooden pattern cylinder restored by Eva-Liisa Kriis at MONA ‘Shadow and Light’ exhibition, Pärnu, Estonia

The Exhibition of work from the student’s of Olustvere TMK textile industries at Pärnu Muuseum were not far removed from natural Scottish woven cloth from the Scottish Islands. The hues and textures were juxtaposed with lace and ornamental buttons to make the cushion covers practical and adding artists touches.

Kogo Gallery, Tartu

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Kogo Galerii, a bijou contemporary art gallery which is somewhat hidden in an attractive square off Kastani, with cafes and sunshine
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Ede Raadik, Sailin’ on the Red Sea

This one woman show features wall-sized artwork which speaks of Raadik’s internal reproductive organs and their metamorphosis. Addressing fertility, menstruation, and the private monthly morphing of the ovaries, together with their abnormalities, these starkly beautiful, computer produced images defy the impersonality of technology. Yet they speak clearly of 21st century medical procedures at the same time as mythical, precious ‘golden’ eggs. Laid down before birth, here the presumptious belief that they will be ready when we need them is challenged. Red of blood and suffering, emotion and the flashing light of danger, precision of ovoid and sphere, this exhibition was moving and fascinating.

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Ede Raadik, Sailin’ on the Red Sea

Many thanks to the lovely woman who was watching the exhibition when I visited it. She was informed, friendly and most kindly drew up a list for me of art places to visit in Tallin, where I was headed later that day.

Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Tallinn

This was a very large exhibition in a utilitarian building on Freedom Square, full to the brim with 20th century artwork in varying media.

 

Gea Sibola Hansen, Bundle of Joy; Leonhard Lapin

 

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Rait ‘Praat’s Archived Green Cloud (1952)
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Vivian Ainsaliu’s Mirage I-V (1979)
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Peeter Laurit’s Broadcasting (1962)
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Inga Heamagi’s Let my prayer arise as incense before you, from Psalm 141:2 (1961)
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Valeri Vinogradov, Forest III (1952)
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Lola Liivat, Clearcutting (1928)
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Mari Roosevalt, Light (1945)

 

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Erika Tammpere, The Land Should be Filled With Children (1942) textile

The Temnikova & Kasela contemporary art gallery, Tallin Gallery Lastekodu 1, 10115 Tallinn, Estonia.

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A walk from the city centre, this gallery had a yellow door with intertwined skeletons – a portent of doom?
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Edith Karlson and Dan Mitchell, The End

Starting at the beginning with the larger than life size cave person about to hurl a rock, and with hints of the big bang, this exhibition simultaneously conjures our possible, some would say, likely, dénouement. Seemingly using concrete, a semblance of lasting weight, it turns out to be empty inside and easy to push over. These materials concretise the sometimes solid sounding, hollow actions of our apparently sophisticated world. Both stark and comic-al, here is the destruction of our planet and interconnected neanderthal behaviour. It’s a warning!

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The internal heating pipes asked to be photographed! Once again the young man who opened the door to me (you have to ring), who could have been rather fed up as I arrived a mere 5 minutes before closing, was solicitous and shyly infromative, taking me into the back afterwards so I could see examples of the upcoming exhibition.

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These vaginal ceramics in their basket wombs were by Kris Lemsalu, an artist I had earlier seen in the main Art House. One of the 20 female artists ‘pushing sulpture forward’ as featured here

 Also to see in Estonia

KUMU contemporary art museum in Kadriorg Park, Tallin.

And don’t miss the ambitious art park planned for the bay of Pärnu, where each of the countries of the nine states of the Baltic Sea including Finland, Sweden, Estonia plus the autonomous Åland in the downtown of Pärnu. The Victoria and Albert Museum, in Dundee has recently opened in the harbour if you are visiting Scotland any time soon.

Pitzhanger Manor

Pitzhanger Manor, also with Soane’s Kitchen (restaurant and bistro), events, shop and park. Currently showing Anish Kapoor. March 2019

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Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, London (official photograph)

 

There is a playful air in the central gallery where Contemporary Art meets Hall of Mirrors. Like little children at the funfair we want to touch the shiny surfaces and test what is real and what is not.

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Anish Kapoor, opening exhibition, Pitzhanger Manor, London (official photograph)

Disorientated, I wonder where I am, what my relationship is to the space and the other people around me. Sparsely placed in a white box of a room, these apparently simple, shiny cubes and discs shimmer and float. They distort and shift reality so much that I question gravity itself

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Art mimics architecture

Transported through portals, doors beyond doors, the floor extends out of the window. The central tardis-shaped work beguiles and bemuses. Although my feet are firmly planted on the floor, I get the feeling that I am teetering on the edge of a cliff.

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I was not the first to want to put my head in this hole!

Looking somewhat like a front loading washing machine, we peer in. All unsuspecting we find we are spun around, divided into segmented slices, ending up all topsy turvy and stained in primary colours.

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Right side up in silver; heads down in rainbow coloured contact lenses

Leaving this rabbit hole world I explore the rest of the house. The sun shines through the amber and Derek Jarman blue stained glass, making patterns and further playing with what is real and what not.

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Unexpected doorways; spines of puce.

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Trellises on the ceiling; walls of scarlet glimpsed through mirrors

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Monasterial archways; a vestibule of make-believe marble; Classical columns, charyatids and statuary.

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Unexpected urns and hand-painted aviaries delight me and I spend a happy afternoon in this fascinating place.

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Roof scape, Pitzhanger Manor
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The Upper Drawing Room, Pitzhanger Manor

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London This was his main residence and is now a museum containing some of the furniture and artefacts from Pitzhanger – well worth visiting.

To get what the Pitzhanger Manor curators have done in collaboration with Kapoor, you should imaginatively travel to Soane’s self-built London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with his collection of antiquities and artworks.

The London Evening Standard newspaper

5 stars in The Telegraph

5 stars Timeout, London

4 stars The London Evening Standard

Double page spread in The Times

Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery can be found in Ealing – Mattock Lane, London, W5 5EQ.

399 Days – Rachel Kneebone

Contemporary sculpture at the V & A, London.

399 Days is a tower of white ceramic, a monumental contortion of barbie legs by Rachel Kneebone  at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Standing nine panels high and seven around, each one the size of a large floor tile, it consists, as much of her sculpture has, of female human limbs sticking out at all angles – a 3D tumble of lower body parts. Holding its own amongst the classics, it is sited cheek by jowl with traditional male statuary – sculpted nudes the colour of blanched almonds: the Rape of Prosperpina, the massively violent Samson Smiting a Philistine (by Giambologna), Jason, and Narcissus (incidentally the name of one of her other works) – and is redolent of Rodin’s famous studies but lacking the muscularity.

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Samson Smiting a Philistine by Giambologna in the V & A Museum, London

Complex in both its sexuality and asexuality, the shiny, almost alabaster surface is similar to, but contrasts with, the matt marble skin we are used to in the halls of the Greeks. 399 Days is chaotic and disorderly next to the Classical form and structure of the ancient ones. Some of Kneebone’s have neat, hairless hints of vaginal cracks – there is nothing natural or wild about them except the overall disarray and partial sculptural splits as if they broke in firing and have been purposely left as reminders of the changes we undergo through age, and of imperfection. These types of legs in fact call to mind the physical ‘perfection’ of upright models with oh-so-slim pins. Have these shop dummy legs been discarded? Are they unwanted or rejected? If so, by whom? 

We think of  more contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled (with foot) who subverts the feminine image in order to both comment and question.

Louise Bourgeois Untitled (with foot)
Untitled (with foot) by Louise Bourgeis

There are sections which include the ornate decoration familiar from Old Master’s picture frames: cloth and wreaths cast in cold porcelain not gilt, orbs and semi-orbs which are a recurring theme in her work (The Area on Whose Brink Silence Begins 2015), and which I then notice on building facades and ornate Rococo altars as I make my way around London. Referencing the art and decoration which went before hers in this way forces us to site the work in the context of the voyeurism and appropriation of that tradition.  

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399 Days by Rachel Kneebone

More chilling are the images of mass graves which are invoked – interlaced piles of chilly nudeness – again that implication that human life is worthless, throw-away, making it impossible to identify them. There is no personal element, as if that would make us question the apparently random distribution. On closer inspection, it is clear that some have pregnant bellies though they are the bodies of girls not women. There is no prettiness, and there are some arrangements and juxtapositions which almost trick the viewer into forgetting they are life copies, where the legs protrude from a central point, for example, like a bunch of stalks with feet as flower heads.

Depending how you approach the Medieval and Renaissance Collection where Kneebone’s sculpture is situated, you may glance into the Cast Courts and see Master Oudrey‘s plaster version of the original 1st century AD stone Trajan’s Column, ‘iconic monument of the classical world’.

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Trajan’s Column, V & A Museum, London

It is a frieze of low relief from Rome depicting the history of Trajan’s campaign. Once again using a form from an earlier era, 399 Days literally turns such figures upside down, depriving them of the rest of their body and fascinating the onlooker who must tour and crane to appreciate her artistry.

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Lengths of white fake flowers adorn a shop in Regent’s Street London. 


This V&A is at Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL. There is also a new one in Dundee., Scotland.

Orla Kiely, A Life in Pattern

Exhibition opens 7 February 2019 at the Dovecot, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh.

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If you have an eye for a strong pattern, if you recognise an iconic design, you will know an Orla Kiely when you see it. Crammed with colour and deceptively simple, Kiely’s patterns adorn hats and handbags, scarves and record sleeves, a Citroën and a sleek pair of shoes. They feature on John Lewis shelves, in Japanese boutiques and the front cover of the Design Museum’s Fifty Bags that Changed the World – you can’t get much more lauded than that in the fashion world!

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The new exhibition at the Dovecot is by no means a straightforward collection of items from an artist’s dusty back room. Care, attention and creativity has gone into the concept of it, developing organically through various stages, as has her internationally famous business, by her own account. It is brightly curated with plenty of space to stand back and admire the larger-than-life-size dresses hanging as if in a massive wardrobe, replicated in a set of miniature stick dolls with names like Agatha and Ivy.

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Colour and print are at the centre of both her life and success. After being encouraged at her convent school by the art teacher, Kiely won a place at the National College of Art and Design in her native Dublin. After a sojourn in New York where she honed her craft painstakingly mixing precisely the right paint shade, she wanted to learn about knitted textiles and attended the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and  Commerce (RSA) in London ”where you can go in with one idea and come out something completely different, where you can find yourself. “ In 2011 she became an Honorary OBE and in 2017 was made Senior Fellow of the RSA.

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The exhibition starts with the Print Library. Panels of natural, especially floral images in a broad palette range from turquoise to olive, and sunshine to the classic orange of the 60s childhood home. Scarlet discs amidst petals of muted blues reminds of Dick Bruna‘s Miffy illustrations which were popular with young readers of the late 60s. Retro yes design which ‘yearns for certainty in tumultuous times’, as the information panel put it? possibly, but look closely and you will discover an intelligence of design which bears living with on a day-to-day basis. Upended owls fit together nicely, playful juxtapositions of original shapes create something new: a peacock tail of flower stalks, parachutes made from petals, apples with flower cores, and somehow they lend themselves equally to dress fabric as to place mat.

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Around the corner is the Wall of Bags and opposite that a set of V and A clothes stands inspired by the mid to late decades of the 20th century. Glorious auburn zigzags, organza baby blue collar, and a raincoat made of the ubiquitous PVC (aka tablecloth material). There is a dated looking bathing costume to die for!

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Like many artists, she represents herself better in her work than in words. Let the vibrancy and clarity of colour speak for her, allow the focus and precision with which she has built her signature and brand do the talking, and you will believe that she is truly one of the ‘excellent women’, to steal Barbara Pym’s novel title with cover design by Kiely herself.

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Aviary, art exhibition

 

19 January – 17 February 2019 The Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh

On entering the exhibition, held in the lower Academician’s rooms at The Royal Scottish Academy, one moves instinctively to the right where the title sign and information hangs. A fitting first work greets the viewer; Elizabeth Blackadder‘s jagged black and white Parrots, four of them tilted and arranged in a quirky manner on poles. Continuing anticlockwise to Aberdeen Ibadan Dronte Chook by Michael Agnew and Ade Adesina, I find a dodo, large enough to jump out of the frame, fixes the viewer with its bulls-eye, possibly with a nod to Edward Lear’s nonsense animals.

‘In that case,’ said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, `I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies–‘

`Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. `I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

`What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.’

from chapter 3 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

While many of the works are black/white or in neutral tones, there is colour to be found in Elspeth Lamb‘s Hyne Awa series further on – a shocking pink sky above and blue down below where the savageness of the painted badger manages to overpower the red kite under a full moon.

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Elspeth Lamb, Hyne Awa

A quarter of the way around the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the artwork’s numbers are moving backwards from fifty. Did the curator plan to start at Blackadder’s #1 only to have the viewers retrace their steps clockwise to #2? I consider changing direction but opposite is the work of the prestigious female artist, Joyce W. Cairns. Not only has she produced the painting with arguably the most depth, Head Study from the Deadly War series, but on 28 Nov 2018 she was appointed the first ever woman to be Director of the RSA in its 193 year history.

Initially unclear as to why the Head Study portrait was included, closer scrutiny reveals a long necked ornithological creature whispering into the girl’s ear. With eyes askance, the girl appears to be listening intently.

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Joyce W Cairns

In conversation, Cairns reveals that she is currently too busy settling into her new role to finish the new painting she started for this very event. Standing in front of Head Study she eloquently explains that its subject, the Bosnian War of (1992-1995) was, ‘like a merry go round where no-one was helping anyone, that this woman is expressing my feelings about the misery that that war caused, the unrest of the soul’.

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Gordon Mitchell, Vista

Later I went back past the door through which I entered to find that #2: a beautiful pen and ink print, Bird and Plant by the late Jack Knox which is redolent of Lear in its simple composition and humorous air.

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The works are packed in with as many as 19 on one wall. Mentions must go to the child-like, stylised Owl for Megan by Michael Agnew (who inexplicably has another work at the opposite end of the room); the pencil line fragility of Will Maclean’s suggestion of wing as can be found on many a mountain path, feathers upright; and Littlejohn’s collage of paper-bird-boats in orange and pink with duck in flight. There is realist work (Busby, Guild) and concrete poetry (the elegant work by Mackenzie with Paterson, and the fold-out Shetland Bird Names by Marion Smith, also on paper).   

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Concrete Poetry: Edward Summerton with Don Paterson
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Mixed media on paper: William Littlejohn, Origama, Cranes and Colour Wheel

There is a vast range of bird life encapsulated in these drawings, sculptures, poetry and other media, notably Eileen Lawrence‘s spacious Prayer Sticks, and Frances Pelly‘s soapstone trio depicting a subtle shrug of raven shoulders; touching hunger of sparrow young; and haughtiness of hen harrier. It is no wonder that one has a red dot (sold) at opening time.

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Lino cut print: Ade Adesina, Another Life
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Sculpture: James Castle, Green Leaf (which is in the fish’ mouth, behind)
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Stuart Mackenzie’s angry bird (above) and Edward Summerton’s 2 gouaches: the hippy Tree Creepy and The Golden Feathered Lover

All photos my own (with permission) except Joyce W Cairns. Title work: Frances Pelly Hen Harrier 

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Murmuration, Greece.

 

Kusama – Infinity

Documentary film, Kusama – Infinity about the artist Yayoi Kusama directed by Heather Lenz. The “top-selling, living, female artist.”

Kusama – Infinity is a fascinating film about the life and work of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama born in 1929. Directed by Heather Lenz, it follows the traditional format of such documentaries with a host of famous ‘talking heads’ such as gallery directors from the Tate, colleagues including Carolee Schneemann, and Kusama herself. It charts her origins and upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan and primarily her dedication and determination which went mostly unnoticed before her consequent move to the US.

The development of her work is examined and contextualised: connections are sought between real life events and landscape, her internal psychology (she underwent Freudian analysis when she was younger and is currently living in a psychiatric hospital); and the thematic strands of her work. Beginning with the ‘net’ pieces inspired by seeing the pattern of fishing nets spread out on the surface of the Pacific Ocean from the aeroplane, the movie goes on to describe and show her love of dots and discs, chairs covered with white protruberances, the famous kaleidoscopic ‘infinity mirrors’ rooms, and ends with the current complicated collages and larger-than-life sculptures reminiscent of Joan Miro.

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She was at the forefront of artistic / political activism having lived through the Vietnam War (“I thought it was wrong, why send this beautiful [human] body to war”); the more conservative Nixon era when there was very little support for contemporary art, never mind female artists on the cutting edge; the space age (seeing the world as a series of very small spots from high up); the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“I made my art to try and change people’s minds”), and free love (she presided over the first homosexual weddings). To all of these she took a stance, responding with art, poignant and plaintive poetry, and costume.

There is a great deal of often compelling historical footage, particularly of her wonderful ‘happenings’. In ‘Narcissus Garden’ she hawked mirror balls for 2$ outside the Italian Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in protest. When the police tried to move her on, she stripped off her kimono revealing a red bodysuit and posed among the balls – never one to miss out on a photo opportunity.

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Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC was an especially delightful episode. “What’s modern here, I don’t see it” she said!

We are shown the letters between Kusama and Georgia O’Keefe from whom she asks advice early on; we see her in a non-sexual relationship with the famous artist Joseph Cornell (27 years her senior) who called her his princess; and hear how Frank Stella was the first to buy her artwork for $75 (it subsequently sold for and enormous $750,000). 

 

Like Louise Bourgeois who used her insomnia as inspiration, the two women also share the use of eyes, stitched work, and blood-red imagery, albeit this latter speaks of classic female subject matter. A contemporary of Niki de Saint Phalle, she has also worked on a monumental scale with bright blocks of colours and complex design including dots and eyes. In turn, she has clearly influenced contemporary female artists such as Anna Ray and Joana Vasconcelos. There are also tastes of indigenous Australian art and traditional Mexican patterns to be found. Pat Oldenburgh is quoted as saying that Claes (her husband) got the idea of soft sewing from her, and this and other blatant plagiarism caused Kusama to fall into depression.

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She constantly struggles with her mental health and the film addresses the possible origins of this – some “trauma in a field of flowers”; being sent by her mother to spy on her father’s sexual liaisons; being forced to sew parachutes in a military factory; and having her art torn from under her, all as a very young girl. There are lots of stills showing her with manic and tortured expressions, shots covering her multiple suicide attempts, and in her own words: “I covered myself in polka dots until I disappeared”.

There is not much to criticise in the film: she is described as touting her work “aggressively” in New York, such terms being used repeatedly about her intense resolution to get her work seen. It was sometimes difficult to know who was speaking at any one time, but it is questionable whether the language used to convey her behaviour would have been used for a male artist.

 

Kusama on the left, Michaelle Possum Nungurrayi, ‘Womens Ceremony’, an example of indigenous Australian art on the right.

Nowadays she is feted, and the feature opens and closes with her sporting a magenta bob and matching spotted dress, painstakingly painting massive and complex, undrafted art work (up to 33’ / over 10 metres) in primary colours full of symbols and, of course, dots.

Further reading:

Current exhibition: Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Entangled Threads exhibition review