Reuben Keehan, curator, QAGOMA

I also think her appeal stems from the curious way she fits into art’s globalisation – and she really is a globally loved artist ...

The work of Yayoi Kusama almost needs no introduction. The abstract painter and sculptor has spent her decades-long career crafting acclaimed avant-garde creations imbued with colour and engaging patterns, solidifying her as one of the greatest living artists in the world. Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art has recently unveiled its latest exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, a comprehensive showcase of work from Yayoi Kusama’s 50-year career. To get an insight into how a monumental exhibition such as this comes together, we spoke to co-curator and QAGOMA Curator of Contemporary Asian Art Reuben Keehan to get his take on Yayoi Kusama’s work and what makes this exhibition a must-see.

Thanks for your time Reuben! To start, can you tell us where your love of art came from originally?
Finger painting, play dough, wooden blocks, beautiful hardcover books my parents kept of old master paintings they’d never seen, and the astonishing objects at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby, where I grew up.

You’re an expert when it comes to contemporary Asian art. What is the most engaging aspect of art in that part of the world?
Asian art complicates a lot of the dominant narratives about what contemporary art is, what it can be and what it can do. The art produced in a context of extraordinary cultural diversity and unprecedented change has a richness and a relevance that makes it utterly compelling in considering our global present, and has a lot to contribute to broader questions.

What do you remember about your first encounter with the works of Yayoi Kusama?
I was working at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2000 when she participated in the Biennale of Sydney. She showed a recreation of a 1965 infinity mirror room at the MCA and her ‘Dots Obsession inflatables at Customs House. She actually came out for the opening, and was quite a formidable presence in her red leotard and feather boa – it was one of the last times she travelled.

Yayoi Kusama is a highly regarded and globally renowned artist – what is it about her style and output that you think earned this recognition?
There’s a lot to be said for that way that her spatial installations translate to photography, and the way those images circulate on social media. But I also think her appeal stems from the curious way she fits into art’s globalisation – and she really is a globally loved artist – through the complicated trajectory her life has taken, starting out in Japan, working between the US and Europe, and returning to Japan, re-establishing herself each time. 

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is a comprehensive look at the artist’s work from the 1950s until now, across more than six decades. As co-curator, what were some of the biggest challenges in putting this exhibition together?
Her unparalleled popularity made it trickier to obtain loans than it would have only a few years ago – we had to compete with so many other shows. And it was important for us to add some substance to the undeniable appeal of her more photogenic works. What story could we tell? What could people take away, in addition to some beautiful images?

What are some of the key motifs and thematic elements apparent in this collection of work?
Her key motifs such as her infinity net paintings, her pumpkins, her flowers and of course her dots are explored in some depth, as is the evolution of some of her more recent imagery, such as the masses of eyes. But it was important for us to stress the consistency of her conception of space, which is fully realised now in her mirror rooms and so on, as well as the centrality of the human body from her early performances to her biomorphic forms to the viewer being placed at the centre of her installations.

What do you think is a bona fide highlight of the exhibition?
Well of course the infinity rooms and other mirrored works are extraordinary perceptual experiences, and she seems to have fully realised her psychedelic experiments of the 1960s. But it’s the little works that have struck me on mounting the show – a really early net painting from 1958, a tiny photograph from 1967 she’s hand coloured, sad and funny collages she produced in 1980. They give a sense of the diversity and richness of her practice over the years.

What do you hope visitors takeaway from the experience?
Joy firstly, as the artist desires, but also a sense of the vast body of work she has produced, and her dedication to art as a transformative force. She’s had a lot of challenges in her life and I hope people are inspired by that.

What are some words of wisdom that you choose to live by?
Love and struggle.

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is being displayed at the Gallery of Modern Art from Saturday November 4 until Sunday February 11.


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