Written by Jaquetta Clark
If there is one exhibition you need to go to this summer, it is Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room. I’m not just saying this because it is worth seeing, which it is, but because the whole concept of the exhibition relies on visitor participation. Throughout August, the Tate Modern has transformed its vast Turbine hall into Yayoi Kusama’s biggest ever Obliteration Room, and it is free for anyone to visit. The only requirement is that you participate in the “obliteration” of the space.
Kusama is one of those rare artists who understands how to make art accessible to everyone, and that is part of her charm. Participating in this exhibit feels like a game, you walk into a completely white domestic room and are given a sheet of colourful round stickers. You are asked to stick each one to something, anything, in the space. On sofas, kitchen counters, the floor, the bed, the piano, anything until the room is completely obliterated beyond original recognition or visibility. There is such an abundance of stickers layered over everything, it is hard to see the objects in the room at first glance. Being let loose with a pack of stickers sounds like every child’s dream right? Well, allow your inner child to play as you walk through the exhibit. It is hard not to when you are surrounded by primary colours, stickers and of course, as it is the summer holidays, lots of children.
The Obliteration Room is the perfect combination of creativity, simplicity and fun. Such a simple concept, a pure white room, which slowly over time, is completely obliterated by colourful repetition of the dots left behind by its visitors. Everyone who visits the exhibition is part of it, making it what it becomes. Immersive and interactive. It is rare to be able to touch art in a gallery let alone create it.
This is not Kusama’s first Obliteration Room, nor is it her first use of simple repetition to create something mind-blowingly effective. The first Obliteration room was commissioned by the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia in 2002. Since then, it has been to more than 20 venues in 15 different countries with around 5 million participants. Much like her other work, it embodies themes that she often explores through her art; accumulation, repetition, and becoming one with the artwork. Kusama created art that you were meant to be in, not just look at. She often played with ways that she could bring the human body into her art, using herself as her muse. Many of the installation photos of her work will include her standing in the space or camouflaged with the room.
Her obsession with dots has, above all else, been a theme throughout her artworks. Kusama has given a lot of love and appreciation to the humble dot. From the intricately detailed dots on the famous pumpkin painting to life-size maze-like rooms of dots, she has made a whole career out of the simple polka dot without ever exhausting its possibilities.
Also at the Tate Modern, and coming to a close in September, is Kusama’s Infinity Mirror exhibition. This awe-inspiring immersive work is a dreamy and deluding space that you can walk through. Created by a series of hanging lights that change colour and reflect everywhere into infinity.
Although this has been a completely sold-out exhibition it hasn’t always been so easy for Kusama. As a Japanese, female artist, she struggled to be taken seriously and accepted as easily as her male counterparts. With many exhibiting concepts very similar to hers that they were able to make famous and take credit for. For example, Kusama was playing with minimalist repetition-based work before Andy Warhol and his iconic dollar bill, and she was making soft sculptures before Claes Oldenburg explored this medium. However, with the rise of social media, Kusama has had incomparable recognition for her work. Perfect for the digital audience, the hashtag #YayoiKusama has over a million posts. Her work is so aesthetically inviting it does encourage the viewer to photograph themselves right there in the magic and share it online. This has led to thousands more people and a much younger audience discovering her work. Despite the struggle she had for recognition throughout her career, at the age of 93, she is more famous and more relevant than ever.
Kusama is a truly revolutionary artist, ahead of her time and consistently at the forefront of creativity. She is an inspiration, still making work to this day. When you go to the Obliteration Room it will be hard to believe that Kusama struggled for so long. You will also be shocked by how amazing a dot can be, and how versatile and immersive many dots can be. Think how satisfying it must have been to stain the white room with that first brightly coloured dot.
Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room at the Tate Modern is in association with UNIQLO Tate Play and on until the 29th of August 2022.