Introducing Kids to the Avant-Garde
Earth, Sun, Moon
“After all, (the) moon is a polka dot, (the) sun is a polka dot, and then, the earth where we live is also a polka dot.”~ Yayoi Kusama on her use of polka dots as a theme in her art.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, Seattle Art Museum
I am an art nerd. I am married to an art and design nerd, and Maki, my co-captain here at Eat The Marshmallow is a fellow art nerd. Maki, my husband and I all went to art school together and are professionally trained visual artists.
In looking at our collective progeny, Maki’s son is a promisingly talented visual artist and seems to process the world around him by making drawings, paintings, and dioramas. My daughter is quite a creative person as well. However, she is less likely to process life happenings and events through visual expression like drawing or painting. This is, in part, due to her learning disability that makes visual and spatial relationships quite challenging for her to take in and produce (the irony of two visual artists such as my husband and I having a daughter who has visual/ spatial problems is not lost on us). But, despite her disability, my daughter is still a creatively expressive person. Her manner of digesting life events is through dramatic imaginary play. All this to say, even multi-generationally, we are a creative bunch that enjoys making, performing, and sharing our vision with others.
And yet, even with our all around familial creative inclinations, going out to see art in the world is a daunting task. I am not a glutton for punishment. The last thing I want to do is to try to go see an art show while dragging around my whining, miserable child who is hell-bent on making me as miserable as she claims to be. The simple solution would be to not take my daughter with me, freeing me to go selfishly see whatever I want, alone or in the company of other adults who are game to attend a show with me. As simple and tempting as that may be, I feel like doing so would be a disservice to my daughter.
Interacting with art is to participate in the human cultural experiment
Art does many things. Viewing art and appreciating it is something that I feel is vitally important to the human condition. It may challenge our perceptions, it may be triggering, it may leave us puzzling about what we just saw, or conversely it can inspire us and positively shift our perceptions. Ultimately, interacting with art is to participate in the human cultural experience. It helps us open ourselves to other people’s viewpoints and experiences. So, as my daughter grows up, I want her to be able to look at art and appreciate it, either for the qualities of the artwork itself, or for what is “behind the scenes.”
On the whole, I have been fairly successful, so far, in giving my daughter a positive experience when I bring her to art shows. Two summers ago, we went to the Team Lab! show at the Pace Gallery of Art and Technology which she and I both loved (interactive, immersive art is really a safe bet when bringing along the kids). I’ve brought her to the SF MoMa for various shows. She has been to countless exhibits and galleries when we visit family abroad (for more details on this, see my editor’s letter for traveling off the beaten path with kids– we end up in a lot of cool, weird, little known museums). I have only made one truly bad call, when I took her to see the Edvard Munch show at the SF MoMA. I think this quote pretty much sums up my daughter’s thoughts on it. She said to me,“Momma, I don’t like being in rooms and rooms filled with crying and death.” Fair enough. She wasn’t wrong. What’s that we say about, “From the mouths of babes…?”
After that debacle, I wanted to try to give her a really big positive experience to erase the effects of the Munch show. So, when my friend and co-captain Maki told me about seeing the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama when she was last in Tokyo (on a family visit), and what a profound experience the show was for her, I was determined to see Kusama’s work in person if the opportunity ever presented itself. And present itself it did, in Maki’s home town no less! The Infinity Mirrors show was going to be exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum. We made a plan, bought the tickets, and turned it into a family event. Our two families attended the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors show together!
I always seek out examples to show my daughter of people, who, despite all odds, influence culture
Yayoi Kusama’s work is generally categorized as avant-garde. She first came on to the art scene in New York in the late 50’s where she staged provocative performance art events in public spaces. She was a contemporary to Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Cornell, and other prominent artists. Plagued with ill-health (she had Grave’s disease as a young person) and burdened with illness-related psychological breaks and vivid hallucinations, Kusama returned to Tokyo in 1973 where she, a few years later, checked herself into a sanitarium where she still resides today (her art studios, where she works, are across the street). Kusama’s work is, in part, her therapy. Though it is highly personal in nature, her work has a universal appeal. It is big, immersive, and invites fantasy, albeit in a contained meditative state. Her touring retrospective has attracted over 2 million visitors making her one of the world’s most popular artists as ranked by museum attendance (The Observer, April 2015).
This was the perfect art experience for my daughter to take in. I always seek out examples to show her, of people who have some sort of challenge, whether it is a physical disability, developmental difference, or learning disability, who manage to create something powerful and share it with the greater world. People who despite all odds, influence culture in a significant way.
Yayoi Kusama says of her art-making process, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.”
There we were, all bearing witness to the work of a woman who, for all intents and purposes, is a self-imposed hermit. The Infinity Rooms were the focus of this show, but in addition to the room installations were also some of Kusama’s paintings, prints, and soft sculptures which all naturally appeal to kids.
One thing I have to say about taking kids to an art show is you get the privilege of witnessing an unedited, pure response to the artwork. I can’t help recalling our experience at an outdoor dance festival where we were watching a modern dance set to a driving Philip Glass score. The kids in attendance were compelled to get up and move (in the weirdest, most original ways) to the music. They couldn’t help themselves, they had to physically respond to the music. And, at least for me, the kids’ spontaneous dance was far more interesting, enjoyable, and genuine than what was happening on the main stage!
The magic of this Kusama show was how disarming the installations were to the adults, rendering everyone the opportunity to experience the spaces with the same wonder and awe we all had moving through the world as 5-year-olds. I found the experience of being in a small room filled with the illusion of being in an infinite space deeply meditative. For my daughter, the whole experience was like a fun house. A fun house experience where you look at yourself, and beyond yourself, in relation to the infinite all at once.
There were three rooms that were identified as favorites by my daughter. One was looking into a tiny window on a giant pink and black polka dotted ball (formally titled Dots Obession, Love Transformed to Dots, peep-in mirror dome) where you could see a reflection of yourself looking in on a tiny infinite pattern of silver and pink balls. By looking through this miniature window, you become the giant interloper, a framed pair of eyes lording over a little world. This scale shift delighted my kiddo. The second favorite room was a white space, filled with white furniture and covered in colored sticker dots. This was an easy favorite because as we walked in, we were given colored sticker dots to add to the room wherever we wanted. We participated in blurring the edges of this “living space.” The last favorite room, and to me the most transformative room, was the Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity. This room made all of us feel like we were in the delicate, fragile space of the cosmos. We left quiet and happy.
Yayoi Kusama has said, “By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease.” I, for one, am extremely grateful to have been able to take my family to witness the attempts for the cure.
Here are our Maki’s son’s and my daughter’s Yayoi Kusama inspired artworks:
Yayoi Kusama Dotted Halloween Pumpkin and the Obliteration Tiger
Yayoi Kusama’s Eternal Soul
My son is a good sport about museum visits. Not that he has a choice in the matter. Whenever a show catches my interest—art, science or pop culture, I drag him along, as long as it’s age-appropriate. There was this one Kara Walker exhibit that I loved, but struggled to explain rape to my kid. Oops. I should’ve known better, being familiar with Kara Walker’s work. But I digress.
Some museums are immediately engaging for my son, like the Museum of Flight in Seattle and the Imperial Treasury in Vienna. I think they speak to his love of storytelling. Airplanes and priceless jewels are tactile objects with history associated with them, and history is basically storytelling. He would sometimes try to recreate something he saw at the museum from Legos or cardboard, and that’s when I know an exhibit has left an impression.
Visual art exhibits can be hit or miss. Even when it’s a miss, his boredom doesn’t concern me. If he’s bored, I tell him why the work is considered important, and experiencing an exhibit through boredom isn’t bad. It might spark something in him later. More often than not, he is receptive. Which brings us to Yayoi Kusama.
My Eternal Soul, National Art Center in Tokyo
Yayoi Kusama’s art, with her signature bright colors and polka dots—is easy to love, especially for kids. We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo in April of this year to catch the largest collection of Yayoi Kusama’s work at the National Art Center. The exhibit, My Eternal Soul, was named for a series of paintings and acrylic sculptures Kusama created since 2009. It also featured some of her more recent and past work.
Walking into the main gallery of My Eternal Soul was an experience. Imagine a closed space the size of a basketball court (maybe larger), with all four walls entirely covered by 4 foot square-panel paintings, no spaces in between. In the open floorspace, huge acrylic sculptures of flora and fauna sprouted, most of them big enough to engulf the tallest visitor. One of the sculptures would’ve looked right at home in the Little Shop of Horrors, with a big eye at the center of the flowers.
One of the things I learned later about Yayoi Kusama from the Infinity Mirror exhibit was how specific she was with regards to how viewers experienced her work. In Infinity Mirror, visitors were allowed between 30 to 40 seconds in each room. It was brief but long enough to feel immersed in her world.
The same care was taken in My Eternal Soul. Despite the large size of the gallery, I felt completely enveloped in Kusama’s work. It was like spacewalking through Kusama’s brain. My son took his time contemplating one of the big plant sculptures. “I liked the way she visualized her mental illness,” he said.
There was one Infinity Mirror room in this show. Thousands of colored lights hung from the ceiling, reflected by mirrors on all sides. It simulated the most stunning walk through the stars, more immersive than any planetarium visited. The beauty of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms are easy to understand. They’re visually striking, meditative, immersive, and mesmerizing.
I hope you have the chance to experience her work with your kids. Infinity Mirrors is currently on view at the Broad in Los Angeles until January 10th, 2018, then it will travel to Toronto and Cleveland through 2018. If you find yourself in Tokyo, Yayoi Kusama has just opened her own museum. I’m pretty sure tickets will be sold out for months in advance, but it’s worth checking out the web site for availability.
Yayoi Kusama Musem http://yayoikusamamuseum.jp/
The Culture Trip: The Self-Obliteration of Yayoi Kusama