It’s a good thing on this blog when something like consensus emerges, and so many of you have sent this my way that it seems we all agree: This is joyful!
An interactive installation at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art by the self-described “obsessive artist” Yayoi Kusama, The obliteration room offers a whitewashed home interior as a blank canvas for children visiting the museum to cover with colorful dots. It’s a joyful exercise in participatory art, in abundance, in layering and accretion. Visitors leave their traces on the space. Their experience of the exhibit becomes manifest in the exhibit. And through the innocent randomness of children’s choices, a pleasurable kind of order emerges. The impulses to cover and to cluster — to cover and conquer a new white space or to cluster around a social crowd of others — make the distribution playful and human.
You wonder about the title: obliteration room. Obliteration feels like a word of violence, of emptiness and destruction. How does this jibe with the impetus towards joy? I believe what Kusama is after here is a kind of transcendence. Though the dot has always been a motif in her work (a childhood portrait of her mother shows it covered with polka dots), these vast fields started to become most prominent in her “happenings,” public events designed as protests to the Vietnam War, where people would gather naked to be painted with dots. As Kusama writes in her autobiography Infinity Nets:
Polka dots, the trademark of “Kusama Happening.” Red, green and yellow polka dots can be the circles representing the earth, the sun, or the moon. Their shapes and what they signify do not really matter. I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe.
The polka dots are unifying; they transform individuals and bodies into a larger being. In that process, the self is “obliterated,” so that this sublime feeling of unity can be obtained. You know it if you’ve been part of a synchronized dance, sung in a choir, or participated in another kind of expression of collective joy — for some moments, you cease to be you-in-the-world, and you become an element in a larger organism, a symbiotic cell in a web that sustains and is sustained by you. In this process, pattern and repetition are intensely powerful mechanisms of transcendence (more on this here).
What about the dot itself? Kusama says the shapes do not really matter, but I don’t believe her. The shape of the dot is the cell; it’s the module upon which the whole system is built. A brick of a charcoal is not a block of ice because the atoms of their essence are different. The dot is the atom of the pattern, and it matters. Kusama describes the significance of the dots in her book Manhattan Suicide Addict:
…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.
There’s an elemental quality to the circle, a primal symmetry that makes it naturally joyful. Roundness connotes safety, invites touch and play. (More on the joy of circles here.) Which brings us back to The obliteration room, which is at its heart deeply playful. Kusama is a heady woman, and there’s a darkness at the root of much of her work (she suffers from hallucinations and lives by choice in a mental institution near her studio in Tokyo), but what I love is that play and joy rise up through these struggles to become the overriding impression of her work. What Kusama achieves in her work is perhaps the greatest transcendence of all: the transformation of pain into joy.
Part of a larger exhibit of Kusama’s work (much of it joyful) called Look Now, See Forever, The obliteration room is on view until March 2012. Thank you to @benbob2u, @jacobyryan, and Liz McCarty for the tips.
For more kids and Kusama, check out this joyful video of a child’s delight at discovering one of her dot rooms.