Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Cornell

Some of you might remember a post about Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (here for those who’ve missed it). This artist fascinates me both because of her work, which dislays a very original vision of life, and her history, about which I will say more later. I was therefore interested to come upon an article which described her relationship with another artist, Joseph Cornell, a man almost as strange as herself. Cornell, a reclusive who made the most exquisite collages and boxes, has also been an old favorite of mine, but I had no idea these two were connected in any way.

 

Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore and Victoria Miro Gallery. Source: Google

 

Yayoi Kusama was born in Tokyo in 1929, the daughter of a horrendously abusive mother who used to tear up her paintings. She suffered from hallucinations since she was a child and, although these developed into the mental illness that led to her spending her life in an asylum, drawing upon these experiences also served as a basis for her art.

Nurturing a fierce determination to move to New York, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keefe and, having received a reply, showed up in the city with no money and little English. In the beginning she was beset by loneliness and poverty, but eventually she became involved in an artistic community which included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Eva Hesse. She became an advocate of free love in 1960 New York, leading nude happenings for which she was reviled as a national disgrace in her homeland.
She became renowned as painter, pop artist, cultural activist, and experimented in various mediums including sculpture, painting, collage, film, performance, happenings, fashion design, and publishing.

 

 

She gained recognition for her sexually charged public performances in Central Park protesting the Vietnam War, her large-scale infinity net paintings, psychedelic mirror room installations, and the ‘Narcissus Garden’ which was shown at the 1966 Venice Biennale.

 

Yayoi Kusama, Horse Play in Woodstock, a happening, 1967. Source:Google

 

Despite presiding over orgies, Kusama had a fear of sex, perhaps because she had suffered from her father’s philandering, and remained abstinent throughout her life. So it was that when she met Joseph Cornell, an odd-duck loner 26 years her senior, who lived with his domineering mother in Flushing, Queens, the two struck up an intense, albeit platonic relationship.

In the basement of his mother’s house, Cornell spent his days dreaming and making delicately detailed glass-covered boxes. These are small imagined worlds made up of found objects where a ping pong ball becomes the moon, or wooden animals and cutout birds are suspended over a landscape of newspaper clippings and little stamps. He often used star maps, small machine parts, pebbles and corks,  along with text from old newspapers and magazines, to create collages. Into these he channeled all his longings and dreams of romance, vanished European cities, and travel to faraway places.

 

Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943. Photograph: Mark Gulezian
Source:Google

 

Cornell hated selling these precious objects, frequently changing galleries and dealers so that no one could gain too much control over his work. But he loved to give them away, especially to women. A deeply romantic man, he adored women but was crippled by physical reserve, accentuated by the behavior and influence of his jealous and possessive mother.

 

A Parrot for Juan Gris, 1953-54. Courtesy of Quicksilver/The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Vaga, NY/Dacs.
Source:Google

 

Cornell became besotted by Kusama, flooding her mailbox with letters and personalized collages, and calling her on the phone constantly.

They became close, often spending time at Cornell’s mother’s home in Queens, passing the day sketching each other in the nude. Of course his mother deeply disapproved of this, and apparently once poured a bucket of water over them as they sat kissing beneath the backyard quince tree.

 

Yayoi Kusama with Joseph Cornell in New York, 1970
Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc. Source:Google

 

After some time Kusama took a step back, feeling the situation had got claustrophobic, but the two isolated, driven, visionary misfits remained close until his death in 1972.

 

Box by Joseph Cornell. Source:Google

 

Kusama was deeply affected by Cornell’s death. She returned to Japan, and in 1977 checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital ever since, going to work in her studio only a short distance away. Cornell’s influence did not end with his death, however, since he had given her boxes of magazine cuttings and other materials which she subsequently used to make a series of luminous collages. These feature elements of his style including surrealist cutouts, layered with her signature pattern of polka dots and infinity nets.

 

Yayoi Kusama
“Self Portrait,” 1972. Source:Google

 

As I mentioned before, Kusama was also involved in publishing a number of works; and while I’m not about to pick up a book entitled ‘Love suicide at Sakuragazuka’, I remain entranced by her unique, delightful weirdness.

 

These days Yayoi Kusama is rarely seen without her trademark red wig and dotty clothing. Source:Google

Nice art – pity about the venue

There is plenty of art on show in Athens these days. As well as the Documenta project, which is spread all over town, from May 26 to 28 there was also Art Athina, a three-day fair open to the public.
Fifty eight galleries, mostly from Greece but quite a few from abroad (Paris, Istambul, Vienna, Zurich, and even as far away as Dubai, Australia and Mexico) offered modern art for sale in a wide range of prices.

 

Art Athina venue: the Olympic Tae Kwon Do stadium (photo from Google)

 

The fair was held at the Tae Kwon Do Stadium in Faliro, on the coast not far from the center of Athens, a venue built especially for the 2004 Athens Olympics. It is a modern and spacious structure benefiting from a wonderful location next to a marina full of yachts. Nowadays it is used for various purposes, such as concerts, and even provided shelter to refugees at the worst of the crisis.

Inside, the galleries had set up their booths, and it was fun wandering around looking at the art on offer.

The view from the top floor

 

Sadly, I was extremely dismayed, if not disgusted, by the state of the building’s interior. I decided not to post any photos, thinking it too depressing. But I was aghast at  the unpainted, stained walls, the dirty floor, the missing or broken fixtures… I don’t understand how some funds could not be raised to at least freshen it up a little.

 

Whimsical pen and ink drawing by Greek artist Leonidas Giannakopoulos

 

The whole issue of the Olympic venues is shameful. Most have been left to rot – and when I think of what Greek taxpayers forked out for them (they were grossly overpriced) it makes me grind my teeth. What’s more, the labyrinthine governmental system means that any attempt at exploiting them is resisted. Apparently the National Shooting Federation wanted to take on the Olympic Shooting complex and keep it functioning and upkept, but their offer was refused. The racetrack and equestrian centre have become totally decrepit, despite racing being a potentially profitable business. Etc, etc. – and we are talking about state-of-the-art, modern installations that could benefit Greek athletes who usually have to train in less than ideal conditions. It beggars belief.

 

Another by the same artist, called Sky Adventures

 

I can only console myself with the thought that, thanks to the Olympics, we have at least got a new, very functional airport, a good subway and a much improved road system. These had been planned for over twenty years (!) but had never materialized and would not have been finished but for the games. Part of the problem being that, wherever you dig, you find antiquities, and work has to stop until the Archaeological Society decrees what is to be done. A couple of museums were filled with what was found on these sites – but that is another story!

 

Outside, a band was tuning up for one of the performances on offer

 

If you are interested in more detail about Art Athina, pop over to the Art in Athens blog, there is a very interesting article here.

 

An altered book by a Greek artist whose name, unfortunately, I did not note. I loved his work, though

 

Documenta comes to Athens

In a surprising move, Adam Szymczyk, Documenta’s Artistic Director, transplanted half this year’s exhibition to Athens, where it is sprawled over 40 venues, showing 160-odd artists, with the working title ‘Learning from Athens’. Documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. It was founded by artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode in 1955, in an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art.

Here in Athens, the heart of the exhibition resides in the large available spaces—the Athens School of Fine Arts, Benaki Museum Pireos Street Annexe, the former Athens Conservatoire, and the EMST Contemporary Art Museum which, due to government mismanagement, has only just opened after years of delays. But the rest of it is spread around the many small galleries about town.
The program also includes a radio station that broadcasts 28 commissioned sound pieces in multiple formats, art films screened on Greek television, a vibrant education program, and a jam-packed schedule of live performances.

 

 

It was difficult to know what to tackle first, so we decided to start with the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which is a converted beer factory, and thus an interesting space in itself.

 

 

The building does not disappoint – it has been beautifully converted, provides an amazing background to showcase art, and has stunning views on the Acropolis, Mount Lycabettus, and the Philopappos hill.

 

 

The art itself, however, and although it did include some stunning pieces, left me somewhat underwhelmed. There were a number of very plain sketches which would have been better placed on Instagram, and installations which, while being creative and sometimes original, inevitably brought to mind the question: This is clever/imaginative/fun, but is it art?

 

Lois Weinsberger, installation for Documenta 14 in Athens

Austrian artist Lois Weinberger had packed old objects  ‘excavated’ from under  the Weinberger family’s old farmhouse floorboards – animal skulls, broken crockery,  bits of torn paper, scraps of wood – into cardboard boxed with plexiglass tops. There was even a line of old shoes.

 

Lois Weinberger, Installation for documenta 14 in Athens

 

Strangely, the labels for the whole exhibition were located on the floor – they were just work titles on paper and handwritten artist’ names on small, rectangular blocks of marble that looked like paperweight (apparently a number have already disappeared – perhaps purloined as souvenirs).

 

 

Another installation comprised a few desks strewn haphazardly in an empty space, as if an office had been abandoned in a hurry. On them were objects described on a list: i.e.  ‘a piece of A4 paper.’

 

Art is very subjective and encompasses a wide range of creativity, yet there are still some some things I don’t get – but perhaps there is nothing to get. Just sayin’. The most creative part here, it seems to me, has been getting people to believe this is worthy of a place in Documenta.

 

 

Moving on, among the video installations was one I found engrossing, from the collaboration of artists Nashashib and Skaer – a group of women and children in a house and courtyard, complete with dogs and chickens – which revisited Gaugin’s images of Tahitian women. Another, called ’15 hours’, by Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing, showed the repetitive work in a Chinese sweatshop – and there was an unbearable one, by Iranian director Forough Ferrokhzad. Called ‘The House is Black’, it documented life in a leper colony. I could only watch a tiny bit – in fact, I’ve noticed that visitors seldom have the patience to watch the whole of a video installation, which, in some instances, is probable a shame.

One aspect of the exhibition I liked was the variety of artists represented, from all over the world. Many from Eastern Europe, and some from unusual destinations – artists from as far away as Mongolia, or belonging to the Sami people from the Arctic regions of Norway. On the other hand, who wants to see a series of portraits of Hitler, even if they do have socio-political connotations? (paintings by McDermott & McGough from their series ‘Hitler and the Homosexuals’.)

 

 

Installation by Cecilia Vicuña for Documenta Athens
Cecilia Vicuña ‘Quipu Womb’ The Story Of The Red Thread, dyed wool

At the end of our tour, we came upon two impressive installations, especially since our first glimpse of them was from above.

A circle of masks made of woven vines by Khvay Samnang.

 

 

And I loved Quipu Womb (Story Of The Red Thread) by Cecilia Vicuña. The ancient art of Quipu is a pre-Colombian form of writing involving intricate knotting patterns. Here, untreated wool was sourced from a local Greek provider and dyed red.

 

Installation by Cecilia Vicuña for Documenta Athens
It is made of wool, and it’s hard to stop oneself from touching it or sneaking inside the strands

 

Art is rampant all over town, and one of the positive effects of Documenta  is that it has attracted a lot of visitors from abroad. Documenta has been called a ‘cultural peace offering‘ from Germany to Greece by some, a ‘Trojan horse’ by others. It so vast and diverse that it is intimidating: one has to make up one’s own mind in the end. The dialogue continues.

 

Mask by Beau Dick. Documenta 14 Athens
A set of twenty ‘tribal’ masks, by the late British Colombian artist Beau Dick

Documenta is on for 100 days, so I will certainly be seeing more of it. For anyone interested in more detail, however, or for those of you living in Greece, I recommend browsing Art Scene Athens, a blog I have often referred to before. There are several detailed posts on the subject, a lot more erudite and objective than my own biased view!

 

They must have been fun to make!

World Watercolor Month

What’s World Watercolor Month?

It’s a month to inspire people to paint with watercolor (watercolour, aquarelle) while raising awareness for the importance of art and creativity in the world.  Anyone can join the celebration, from master watercolorists to artists just starting out with watercolor!

 

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Best of all, this first year of the celebration will be about raising awareness for children in need of art supplies and art education around the globe. Art is an important aspect of child development and paves the way for a successful future. What would the world be without art?

 

 

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How could I resist? I’m joining the 31-day challenge – a watercolor each day. Some might be just doodles, some only dabs (abstract dabs?), but it will be fun. It will be motivation to pick up a brush each day, to try new things; and an opportunity to meet other artists. I will be posting on Instagram(athensletters). Below is my first contribution:

Day 1: Sketch of flowers past their prime.
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Sculpture update: Tony Cragg in Athens


imageThe little girl standing next to me was counting faces.
‘There’s one,’ she pointed. ‘And another!’

imageThe sculpture before us was made of sheets of plywood glued together in layers. Three twisted pillars that reminded me of rock formations – or stalagmites (see photo on left). But as we circled it slowly, human profiles revealed themselves: some impassive, some stern, some faintly smiling. The little girl got excited, and so did I. If you look at the photo above, and the close-up below, you will see what I mean. This was one of the most deceptively simple, yet, upon inspection, incredibly complex pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
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When asked if some of the faces somehow ‘appear’ when he’s creating the piece, Tony Cragg is firm. Everything is meticulously planned. He takes pencil to paper and sketches out every facet of a new idea before converting it to 3D. Sometimes this proves impossible – his imagination has run away with him. Some ideas never evolve beyond the drawing stage, but if the drawings themselves are lovely, the completed sculptures are breathtaking.

On September 8, a cosmopolitan and mostly young crowd gathered at the Benaki Museum for the opening of Tony Cragg’s sculpture exhibition. Cragg, 66, born in Liverpool, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1988, has never shown his work in Greece before. He appeared happy to explain his thought processes as he stood in the auditorium, looking relaxed in an open-necked shirt. The audience enjoyed his engaging narrative which was accompanied by a slide show, and afterwards plied him with questions and requests to sign their catalogues.

Wandering amongst the works after the talk, my overwhelming urge was to touch them. Their curved, smooth surfaces cried out to be stroked.
imageCragg uses natural materials such as wood, polished stone and bronze as well as mirror-finish steel and even plastic.
The sculptures are very different. Some are squat and grounded.
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Some seem to be leaning into the wind, their surface eroded into the outlines of human profiles. Others soar upwards. Yet they all emit the same energy, their shapes shifting depending on where you’re standing.

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As I was leaving, I stopped to admire a few of the bigger bronze sculptures dotted about the museum’s wonderful courtyard.

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The exhibition was curated by Xenia Geroulanou of the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery,  who has represented the artist for 20 years; the Benaki Museum; and the artist himself, who loaned all the works from his own foundation.

*For anyone interested, below is the link to an article about Tony Cragg written by Vanessa Wildenstein for Athens Insider Magazine.

*For those in Athens, the exhibition runs until November 8, 2015.

Opening hours are Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 2102.345.3111, http://www.benaki.gr