Toronto is having an elderly-female-Japanese-artist moment, with two museum shows devoted to this demographic – artists from the same place (New York, actually, not Japan) and time (the performance-art explosion of the 1960s) with remarkably similar thematic preoccupations. Both shows are about the infinite. Both involve a degree of group participation. Both are astoundingly popular. Why this aesthetic, this very specific set of intellectual interests, now?
The two shows are Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed, at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. The timing of the shows is a coincidence, but their popularity means something. Both shows are accessible and optimistic. Both invite participation. There is a certain amount of socializing over art going on.
It is perhaps a hippie moment – a Love-In, a Be-In, a Happening.
Infinity Mirrors has been on for some months now (it continues until May 27) and most of the press about it has been on its unprecedented success. Getting tickets to see it is as tough as finding NHL playoff seats.
All advance tickets are sold out; queues for same-day tickets form an hour before the gallery opens. Once you do have a ticket, you are assigned a precise viewing time, and your ticket is scanned three separate times – as if in an airport with serious security concerns – before you are allowed 20 to 30 seconds inside each of the magical “pods,” the most intriguing part of the show. The pods are small mirrored rooms with illuminated objects inside them; they give you the impression of floating in an infinitely extending galaxy of these objects. They are immersive and hallucinatory environments and it is no surprise that such aesthetically enveloping art has stirred passionate response in a general public that has become rather weary of dry and cerebral installations.
There are other wonderful works by Kusama on display – paintings and collages of patterns of dots, many photos and a short film documenting trippy performances of the 1960s – and much explanatory text about her life and concerns. The whole thing combines art and history lessons about that crazy New York moment (the time of Happenings and Be-Ins) in a subtle and satisfying way (if you don’t mind the sense that you are lining up for entry to an exclusive yet particularly dangerous nightclub).
Little has been made so far, though, about the fascinating parallel to the other show a few blocks away: Ono was born in 1933; Kusama in 1929. They were both born in Japan, yet active in New York at the same time. Both had connections to early conceptualism and hippie avant-gardism. Both organized protests against the Vietnam War.
The Riverbed (on until June 3) has an explicitly meditative aspect. It consists of three elements. Stone Piece is a river of round stones on the floor, with an inducement to pick one up and hold it until you release your anger and sadness. Line Piece is a room with string and nails in the walls; visitors are told to “Take me to the farthest place in our planet by extending the line.” This has resulted in a web of string like a canopy at about head level. Mend Piece is a room with tables and broken crockery that attendees may tie and tape together to make their own artworks that are then hung on the walls. (“It will mend the earth at the same time.”) Pencils are free to anyone who wants to write messages or poems on the wall as well.
This has also been an unusual success for this quiet little museum. The Gardiner reports that attendance has been more than double what it was at this time last year. It is remarkable how much Ono’s river of stones resembles Kusama’s early pebble paintings, and echoes Kusama’s obsession with polka dots.
Ono’s work is not as deep as her older counterpart’s.
The early days of conceptualism, even from its origin in Dadaism, had an aversion to obvious content: It had no message; it was about expanding definitions of and control of art. In many ways, it was against meaning, meaning being simple-minded and bourgeois. Ono’s groundbreaking early work – such as Cut Piece, in which she sat still while gallery-goers cut her clothes off her body – was steadfastly cryptic.
But as her career progressed, Ono got heavier on the meanings – and what simple meanings. These pieces have messages like inspirational slogans.
Let go of your anger; be one with the universe; peace and love. The Toronto public has responded with equally enthusiastic sentimentality, writing happy things on the wall like, “We are bound together by our common humanity.” This feels not so much like an art exhibition as the result of an underfunded group therapy session, or worse, a corporate team-building exercise.
Inspirational messages – a cranky person might call them platitudes – undermine the cerebral otherness of the conceptual art moment that Ono helped create back in the day.
Meanwhile, Kusama’s work – technically accomplished, meticulously beautiful and thoroughly abstract – has a more powerful impact and a more obscure message. It is about experience rather than lesson. When one does read about the artist’s complicated and contradictory ideas – ideas that are not at all explicit on the surface of the work – one finds that she did share a lot of Ono’s somewhat sentimental optimism about becoming one with nature. Kusama wrote at different points that she aimed for the annihilation of individual self against the backdrop of infinite universe, and the recurring polka dots represent something like universal sameness or repetition. She also promoted nudity and sexual freedom as both anti-individualistic and anti-war, like many of Ono’s contemporaries. But Kusama also confessed that she was frightened of sex itself – and some of the soft phallic shapes that crowd her landscapes are more nightmarish than sexy. This kind of natural human self-contradiction is so much more intriguing than written instructions to “mend the earth.” The weakness of the literal is put in relief by this juxtaposition of artists.
Still, the parallels are just as interesting as this contrast. There is a sense of joy in Kusama’s bright colours and endless horizons, as there is in Ono’s stress-relieving wrapping-china therapy and in her stream of nice stones. And there is a pleasure in the forced conversation among strangers in the queues at the AGO and in the communal silent meditation at the Gardiner. No one takes their clothes off and dances in the streets in Toronto, but still we like the idea of a Happening.