Flowers that Bloom at Midnight 2010/11

‘Flowers that Bloom at Midnight’ is a series of sculptures, each with its own exuberant colour scheme, on which Yayoi Kusama has been working since 2009. For this exhibition, she has grouped four of these towering flowers into an artificial grove, their shiny surfaces, polka-dotted petals and great, staring eyes recalling animated alien flora of science fiction and fantasy tales. Designed to be viewed from multiple angles, their arrangement as a midnight garden encourages audiences to move around the room.

Flowers have long been an important component of Kusama’s oeuvre. Their symbolism reflects many of the artist’s conceptual preoccupations as well as her disregard for dichotomies: they connote life and death, celebration and mourning, masculinity and femininity, while their complex forms — organic, fragile, finding uniqueness through repetition — find echoes throughout Kusama’s practice. In plentiful supply thanks to her family’s nursery business, flowers flourished in Kusama’s first reported visions, consuming entire rooms and communicating ominously with the artist.

As a means of intuitively working through these experiences, flowers figure in many of Kusama’s earliest paintings and drawings, her subjects drawn from the fields near her family home. In a photograph of the artist at the age of ten, she is almost obscured by enormous chrysanthemums. They would remain a staple motif in the painterly experiments of her first decade as a professional artist. Like the polka dots, they reappeared in her ‘happenings’ of the late 1960s, in the sympathetic environment of the anti-war counterculture, as they fitted neatly into the context of the ‘flower power’ movement of the time. More poignantly, they feature in the melancholic collages she made after returning to Japan in the early 1970s, as a way of dealing with the deaths of the artist Joseph Cornell (her lover), and her father, Kamon. Their forms would later emerge menacingly from masses of tendrils in her human-scaled soft sculptures of the 1980s, while her 1998 novel Violet Obsession describes the experiences of a young girl, persecuted by her mother, who discovers she can converse with flowers as agents of the universe.

Flowers that Bloom at Midnight finds direct precedence in a series of outdoor sculptures Kusama has executed over the past decade. Monumental in scale, these works consist of floral forms that are at once simplified and fantastical, and finished in polka-dotted planes of vivid colour. Their scale and alien appearance evokes a strange and overwhelming power. With an air of uncanny sexuality, their comical styling, pristine surfaces and exuberant tones are decidedly joyous, contrasting strongly with the darker function flowers performed in her earlier works.

Installation view of Flowers that Bloom at Midnight 2011 and TRANSMIGRATION 2010–11 (background) in ‘Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever’, Gallery of Modern Art, 2011 / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc. / Photograph: Mark Sherwood