• Spots or Dots? Dead or Alive?

No contest.  At one end of Tate Modern, what’s on display is an illusion of art, clinically and artistically dead (Damien Hirst, until 9.09.12).  At the other end, the art is intuitively and artistically alive (Yayoi Kusama, until 5.06.12).

I wasn’t the only one moving pretty much at a walking pace through the exhibition of work ‘by’ Hirst.  It has little depth, never engages beyond the occasional gawp at the moments of sheer grossness.  It is cold, calculating, shallow.  The famous pickled shark doesn’t “provoke in the viewer a profound, primal fear”, as Hirst boasts.  It’s dead, for goodness sake.  The cabinets of cigarette butts, medical instruments and pharmaceutical products are as lifeless and flat as the spot paintings.  If you like catalogue art, go to the more intriguing and less formulaic show at the Barbican Curve.  There, Song Dong‘s ‘Waste Not’ (until 15.06.12) has gathered together and sorted 10,000 household objects that his mother hoarded in her Chinese home over decades.  At least there’s humanity in such a collecting mania.

Hirst’s greatest crime against the living is his attitude towards butterflies.  He’s killed thousands.  He’s pasted them in pretty-pretty patterns in huge frames (well, of course, he didn’t do it himself; he’s above that sort of thing).  You can even buy tawdry rolls of ‘Hope’ wallpaper reproducing images from the circular Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2oo6, butterflies and household gloss on canvas).  That’s if you’re callous enough and foolish enough to fork out for the extortionate price the Tate Modern shop is charging (£250 a roll; you can pay £675-£700 for limited editions of other patterns).

Most disgusting of all is the room containing living butterflies.  Not British ones – too common – but exotic butterflies, stupefied by the chunks of sweet pineapple and mango on which they sup.  They can fly, but they’re in the last stages of life (no life-cycle here – no eggs, caterpillars, just chrysalises brought in from outside).  If you want to see exotic butterflies in a more reasonably natural habitat, go to Kew Gardens.  Hirst’s cynical, mortiferous attitude to life is nowhere more full-frontal than in his work with flies.  They die like flies in a sealed transparent box.  Elsewhere, their predecessors have been pasted thickly onto a giant ‘spot’ on a wall (Black Sun, 2004).  Flywheel and Shyster.

Both Hirst and Kusama have a strong element of OCD.  Where Hirst has spots, dead flies and cigarette butts, Kusama has dots, airmail stickers and quasi-phallic symbols.  I know which I prefer.  Only one of Hirst spot paintings (1986) has any expressive quality: it’s roughly executed, and he painted it himself (good grief).  Kusama’s repetitions are also irregular, and she’s genuinely hands-on.  She’s been developing her repertoire of repetitions for much longer than Hirst has been on this earth and her impulsive art draws the viewer in.  It was noticeable on the day that I visited that there were hundreds of people skimming through the Hirst galleries, while in the Kusama galleries less than a tenth of that number were able – and wanted –  to absorb her work at a thoughtful pace.  As if to point up the aesthetic gap between to the two, Kusama’s fascinating collage of an elephant hawk moth from the 1970s was made without having recourse to murdering any living creature.

Her repetitions are free, crowding in or spaced out on more than one plane, challenging in their metaphorical dimensions.  There are clear themes which follow one another as the years pass, but the forms into which Kusama shapes her obsessions rarely stand still and nearly always surprise and delight.  I was particularly taken by the ‘white’ paintings of the late 50s and early 60s, reminiscent of the minimalist, unistic paintings that Władysław Strzemiński created in the 20s and 30s.  Her ‘accumulations’ of off-white quasi-phallic shapes are also intriguing, no more so than in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963), which features in The Guardian picture sequence linked at the top of this post.  There are off-beat videos, involving her wandering around NYC in Japanese costume or placing leaves on naked bodies.  Very happening in the late 1960s.

Quite how her personal circumstances during the last 30 years and more are reflected in her work is up for debate. She has effectively sectioned herself while still going out to her studio each day to continue her artistic career.  She’s become more colourful, and therefore ostensibly bolder.  And she takes delight in being present in her works and exhibitions, presenting a gnomic face to the external world.  For me the most magical work of recent years is her play with lights and mirrored infinity rooms.  In I’m Here, but Nothing (2000), a sitting room is cover with fluorescent coloured stickers which glow in the dark and disorient perspective.  Her infinity room Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) is one of the most beautiful installations I’ve ever seen.

The constantly varied combinations of little suspended lights, reflected and reflected in the black-mirrored space, range from spring woodland to bright city colours in a way that is bewitching.  It felt as if one of van Gogh’s night paintings had come to life, in a delicate Japanese way.  I came out of the exhibition feeling alive and invigorated.  I’m so glad I went to it second.


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