Visiting the Fascinating Yayoi Kusama Exhibition in São Paulo

If you happen to be visiting São Paulo for the World Cup and are looking for something interesting to do when you’re not cheering on your favorite team, pay a visit to the Instituto Tomie Ohtake to see the dazzling exhibit assembling works from the career of provocative Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama.  The exhibit is currently traveling around Latin America and will be in São Paulo until July 27, 2014.

The exhibit takes the visitor on a journey through the life and work of Yayoi Kusama, born in Matsumoto City, Japan in 1929 and still alive today and producing art at the age of 85.  Much of Kusama’s work deals with her own psychological obsessions, very often the phallus, and represents them in painting, sculpture, room installations, film and other media.

The first room in the exhibit displays some rather conventional watercolors that the artist had painted in Japan in her younger years. Her work began taking on a more abstract form with her “Infinity Net” paintings in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where she obsessively repeated brushstrokes.  To me, these paintings looked a bit like what you might see under a microscope in biology class, but fascinating all the same.  Kusara began achieving artistic fame with these paintings and moved to New York City in 1957 where she met artists such as Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg and Joseph Cornell.

As she was developing acclaim for her paintings, Kusara began working on sculptures.  In her “Accumulation Sculptures” she took everyday household objects like chairs, clothes, cooking utensils, etc. and covered them in phallic objects or simply painted macaroni.


In 1963, Kusara made a sculpture for a room installation, entitled ” Walking in the Sea of Death.”   The installation, in a room painted black, is a rowboat covered with silver phalluses.  Depictions of the rowboat are repeated on the floor throughout the room.  The title of the work suggests a mythic passage to the underworld.


In 1965, Kusama created the “Infinity Mirror Room,” with mirrors on all sides and the floor covered with red polka-dotted phalluses.  This is a particularly fun room for taking photos.


The exhibit also shows an impressive collection of photography and articles that Kusara kept which provide a thorough documentation of her life and activities in the counterculture of the 1960s.  She was a prominent activist against the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon, once offering to have “vigorous sex” with him if he would end the war.  She also officiated at what she described as the “first homosexual wedding in the United States” in 1968, which was held at Kusara’s Church of the Self-Obliteration in New York City.  She also created some psychedelic films, some of which are on display at the exhibit.  The films show some of the parties Kusara organized involving naked people and body paint.  Watching this made me wonder if Kusara was secretly the inventor of the game Twister.

Kusama returned to Japan in 1973.  Since 1977, she has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric institution there.  Much of her work since then has involved repeating dots over and over again.  At the exhibit, you can walk through a room with a blacklight that has been speckled with fluorescent dots.  More rooms display paintings showing her later work.


The most impressive room in the exhibit is a newer work of Kusama called “Infinity Mirror Room – Filled With the Brilliance of Life,” completed in 2011.  The room changes color constantly and is sublimely beautiful.  It continues the artist’s thematic representation of dots and mirrors.


There is an additional room with large pink-polka dotted balls and another small room with furniture where you can put dot stickers on the wall and the furniture.  This area seems to be a favorite with kids (although I was a little surprised that people would actually bring kids to an exhibit so replete in adult subject matter).


The building where the Instituto Tomie Ohtake resides is itself architecturally innovative, colorful and curvaceous.


To get there, take the Linha Amarelha to the Faria Lima station.  Once you exit the station, head north on Faria Lima until you reach the skyscraper that houses the institute.  The exhibit is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 8 pm and admission is free.  My advice: go early to beat the crowds and try to avoid going on the weekends.  I arrived at 11am and was able to fully enjoy this incredible exhibit.

Have you visited the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo?  What were your impressions? 


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