05/23/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hong Kong's Kraze Over Kusama

Most visitors have already left the scene of ART HK 2012, Hong Kong's leading international art fair and must-see venue for Asian contemporary art, yet one artist remains in the city spotlight -- Yayoi Kusama. At 83 years old, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama boasts a pioneering oeuvre in many forms of media from the past five decades. Possessing a hallucinatory obsession with dots due to hardships she suffered as a child, Kusama uses art as an outlet. Today, as she willingly lives in a mental hospital in Tokyo, her artwork garners international success in museums and galleries all over the world, with a current solo exhibition at the Tate Modern and even participating in an exhibition at the cutting edge On Stellar Rays gallery in New York.  Hong Kong proves no exception.

Now that Hong Kong has become the world's third largest art auction market by sales with leading galleries flocking to the scene, it comes as no surprise that in this month's art frenzy, the city features Kusama whose artwork has the highest turnover of any living woman. ART HK 2012 displayed pieces of an institutional scale that viewers rarely have the opportunity to see, including Flower (pictured above), an installation of Yayoi Kusama's distinctive large scale sculptures presented by Gagosian Gallery.

While 70,000 people were reportedly in town for the fair, Sotheby"s opened a new gallery in Hong Kong on Saturday, May 19, 2012, to "signal its intention to make its mark in Hong Kong beyond the auction room."   Inaugurating this new space is Hong Kong Blooms in My Mind, a selling exhibition of 40 pieces of Kusama's world-renowned art.

Nearby, Infinity in the Universe of Yayoi Kusama, an exhibition currently on view until June 1st at Opera Gallery in Hong Kong displays a diverse collection of Kusama's paintings, limited edition prints, and a 2.6 meter sculpture of polka dot girl titled Kei Chan.  Check out MutualArt's interview with Shirley Yablonsky, Director of Opera Gallery in Hong Kong below, to learn why the 'kraze' over Kusama and how her work fits into the current Hong Kong scene.

Where did the idea for this show come from? How is it organized?

I've loved Kusama's work for many years, and once her European retrospective was announced last year I knew it is the right momentum to curate a show of her work in Hong Kong. The idea was to allow people that love her work access to her collection right here at their doorstep. For those who don't have the chance to travel to Paris or London to view the museum showings, this was still an opportunity to take part in the international celebration of the artist's successful career. We spent the last 10 months working on the collection for the show building a balanced exhibition showcasing works from the early 1980s up to 2011 with sculptures and limited editions prints, adding volume to the painting collection.

How did you select work for this exhibition -- Infinity in the Universe of Yayoi Kusama -- from such a prolific artist?

We were seeking important pieces of the artist's eclectic portfolio, as well as ones that carry her most famous and recognizable motifs, such as the Infinity Nets and the Pumpkins (pictured below right).

Which works are the highlights of this exhibition?

The main highlight of the show is the unique piece titled Kei Chan, a girl in polka dot dress sculpture raising to 2.6m in height (pictured above left). Kusama created the work last year, at the age of 83 years old. It is a remarkable display of the peak of her creativity and livelihood even at this age.

Why is the artwork of Yayoi Kusama unique?

Kusama is considered an avant-garde artist that experimented in numerous artistic areas since the early 1960's. The Infinity Nets (pictured below left) and the polka dots identify her unique inventions and became her trademark in the art world. From live installation to film directing, her entire oeuvre is dotted by these motifs.

How does Infinity in the Universe of Yayoi Kusama fit into the Hong Kong scene right now, which is already packed with last weekend's ART HK 2012 and all of its complementary events?

We choose to curate the show at this time specifically due to the overwhelming art events happening throughout the city. Hong Kong is reaching peaks of exposure, with massive amounts of art and an ever flowing river of events and exhibitions. We knew the Infinity in the Universe of Yayoi Kusama will win great popularity and attention from the public, collectors and media due to the enormous interest in Kusama these days.

How does the Kusama selling exhibition at the new Sotheby's space in Hong Kong affect your show?

We welcome the Sotheby's show which together with our show increases the awareness and popularity of the artist in the region. We have long time collectors and followers of Kusama's work and the show was nearly sold out prior to grand opening night which proved the great interest and demand the market has for Kusama.

Do you think that the constant discussion of Kusama's mental condition by critics is accurate or overblown?

I think one must understand her background and the impact of her mental condition on her creativity to be able to truly understand her work. Her mental disease caused her hallucinations, which she then translated onto the canvases in forms of nets and dots. The disease played a center motive in Kusama's creation, making her create in an impulsive and compulsive manner. But at the same time creating was the remedy to her disease.

What do you hope the visitor takes away from this exhibition at Opera Gallery?

I hope visitors will discover Kusama once again and truly fall in love with her work. It is one thing to see one of her paintings here and there, and another thing when you walk into a show that is filled with Kusama motifs. You may love it or hate it but you will not remain ambivalent to her work. 

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

Did you attend ART HK 2012?  What do you think of Yayoi Kusama? How does her work affect you?  Will Hong Kong grow as a global art center?