Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Art of Dottiness

Reconstruction by Pants

Every so often, the electricity supply here in Larrikin's End blips for about 30 seconds. Not enough time to ruin a soufflé, but certainly enough to throw every electronic device at Seat of Pants into a tailspin. The worst of it is having to go around and reset all the clocks. Every appliance these days feels the need to know the time and, even creepier, to go into epileptic meltdown if it momentarily loses that ability, resulting in fits of uncontrollable blinking.

This is an accurate metaphor for how I'm feeling at the moment. Suffice to say, the reconciliation with the birth-mother country has hit something of a major snag. Our biorhythms are most definitely not in synch at the present moment. What this means is that I'm almost always seeking escape, and this usually involves bumming a ride on someone else's psychic Segway. Happily, in recent months, there have been plenty on which to hitch.

I was in Brisbane a few weeks ago to see the Matisse exhibition at GOMA, (of which more later), and I also popped in to the Yayoi Kusama show Look Now, See Forever. It seems to me that Kusama has this life lark figured out about right. When she's not travelling the world spreading her infectious brand of wonderfulness, she lives in a nuthouse. It could be argued that she is a lot saner than those of us who persist in butting heads with idiots for a far smaller allocation of crust when we could be decorating the world with bright colours instead.

The polka dots, her most recognisable image, are an interpretation of the hallucinations that Kusama began experiencing from an early age. As I've mentioned many times before, I'm automatically a fan of any art that can bring glee to the face of a small child. Obliteration Room is an interactive piece that is installed using locally sourced elements. It comprises a suite of rooms containing everyday household objects like televisions, sofas, shelves tables and chairs, all painted in matt white. Visitors are each given a sheet of dots and instructed to place their dots where they please.

It's undoubtedly the best interactive artwork I've ever experienced. It operates on a number of levels. The children love it, of course, and it's not half fun if you're a curmudgeonly matron either. It's completely inclusive. Any person of any age or ability can place a sticky dot. It's utterly egalitarian. There is no wrong place to put your dots and no wrong way to deal with your dots. As you can see, I saved half of mine to create my own artwork, above. Barney ate all of his dots, thinking they were tabs of acid. Judging by his behaviour immediately following, I assume they were.

My favourite thing about the Obliteration Room is that, at some point, it either has reached or will reach an aesthetic peak but no one will be there to make that call and perhaps no one will even notice. The first couple of visitors who deposited dots might have had some pleasure in the blank canvas that was before them but they would not have had much of a glimpse of what was going to be possible. We came about halfway into the experiment and, I must say, it did look pretty amazing. But it will obviously reach the point where it looks like 101 Dalmatians' breakfasts.

Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, 'art is never finished, only abandoned.' The artist's dilemma is choosing the right moment to walk away. Nothing is ever perfect. That's a given. But over-whipping the cream leaves you with curds, whey and a naked sponge. To most artists, the fear of not knowing when to put down the brush/chisel/spray can puts global warming, international terrorism and being caught with an outdated electronic device in the shade.*

I'll bet that not even Leonardo could have predicted that a half-millennium after he'd painted the famed Mona Lisa, it would still be making news. Last week The Prado Museum in Madrid announced that it had an almost fully restored painting of her thought to be by a da Vinci student, done during the same sitting. If you haven't already done it, it's fun to play with this comparator for a few minutes.

I have seen Leonardo's Lisa several times and a great many other Leonardo bits and bobs to boot. There is no doubt in my mind whatever, that being in the vicinity of any object he made, even down to the roughest, tossed-off sketch is a special privilege. I don't believe it's an entirely conditioned response. Great artists find a sensory level on which to communicate, which is the thing that makes them great artists and the reason not even experts can accurately pinpoint the nature of their allure.

Kusama has made some intriguing signature pieces over her long career. In addition to the dot motif, she does a fine line in flowers and pumpkins. These are happier relics of childhood, recalling the family business - a plant nursery. The legacy of her time as a performance artist in the New York City of the sixties is evident in the psychedelic fantasies she creates in works like Dots Obsession. It's a rabbit hole into which one willingly tumbles. Very much a happening in the best sense.

You'd think it would be easy to do this stuff, but very few artists do it well. Not someone who normally shies from fun, I've been resolutely po-faced at many an ill-conceived attempt to get me to participate in an art event. But when an artist of such insight and skill as Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread or Anthony Gormley tosses a structure in my path and requests my response, I'm er, like, can I be your slave?

Obliteration Room does not carry the gravitas of Cloudgate, House or Event Horizon, but I do admire Kusama's take on public participation. Although clearly obsessively perfectionist in many ways - circles are a giveaway indicator - she is happy to author a work over which she has no control. Its compositional ideal will come and go without her being able to say 'stop sticking now'. She's not the first artist to play around in that territory, but the interesting thing about it is how easily and cleverly it blends with her other impeccably constructed pieces.

It doesn't come across as an attempt to bring art to the masses. It does, very simply, ask for a small but significant personal contribution to a mass artwork. Kusama exploits many aspects of our vanity successfully, using her own best-known symbol. We are all very confident that we can not only stick dots on a wall or object with the kind of aplomb that would make Lady Gaga blush, but we are also convinced that we can improve on what was already there. I'm not entirely sure that toddlers experience this degree of self-congratulation after exhausting their allocation of coloured dots but, judging by the level of satisfaction I witnessed, there was some pay-off, maybe the promise of a baby gelato, which would have been entirely appropriate.

I'm writing this piece now as a major Kusama retrospective is just about to open at one's beloved Tate Modern. And it will have an Obliteration Room. It's not often these days that I get to be ahead of any game.

*someone is bound to email me with the news that you can now get any number of smarty-pants appliances capable of resetting their pointless little clocks every time there is a thirty-second power outage, I just know it.