Liberty and Anarchy. Nike Savvas. Leeds Art Gallery. 22-01-13

IMG_0057The exhibition verbiage tells us that Nike Savvas, born in 1964, is one of the most significant Australian artists of her generation, but she is not well known in England so it is good to have the chance to see her work here in Leeds art gallery for the first time. It is her first show here in Britain for ten years. There is both a collection of recent work and a large site specific installation which has been made especially for the gallery, which gives the exhibition its title, Liberty and Anarchy.

 It’s a wonderfully accessible exhibition, especially for someone who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, owned a spirograph, and remembers the time when there was a fashion for string art kits and pulsating “psychedelic” images were everywhere. Nike Savage has been called an “installation mathematician” and the open and closed sculptural forms which she has made are a collection of large three dimensional shapes, wooden frames strung with coloured thread, making a wonderful juxtaposition of severe straight edges, elegant curves and repeating patterns. They are light and airy and beautiful to look at. Colour is important too, both vibrant and subtle, forming shaded patterns within patterns. It is easy to see resonances from the work of Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth in them, but this work has a kind of vibrant joy of its own. It may not spring from an especially original starting point but it is taking the ideas of the previous generation and running with them, taking them to a new place, which is an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. These are very precise, ordered, pieces of work, calm and self possessed, which seem to have nothing to declare except their beauty. I liked them very much.


I like the idea that things so precisely created and so perfectly designed and ordered can produce a sense of freedom and throw up unexpected and unusual effects as you look at them, almost in spite of an attempt to pin them down. What you get is much more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea whether that is what was meant by the title but it’s what I have decided it means!

The major single work, Art and Anarchy which fills one of the gallery spaces, seems to me to be a real tribute to “op art” you can’t look at it without thinking of the vibrant colour and patterns in the work of Bridget Riley. It is made up of eighteen vibrant industrial coloured polypropylene screens. As you look at them and stare through the coloured bands of plastic your eyes move and the patterns of colour that you see change and dissolve in front of your eyes. It is quite mesmerising.


I shall be on the look out for more opportunities to see Nike Savvas’ work. Some of the other installations which she has made elsewhere look breathtaking- rather like the work of Yayoi Kusama. I hope that she doesn’t leave it another ten years before we get the chance!


Yayoi Kusama. Tate Modern. 01-03-12

Yayoi Kusama 1965 Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Yayoi Kusama studio inc. Photo: Eikoh Hosoe

Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most prominent living artist, was born in 1929 into a world which didn’t encourage self expression. Especially for women. Her wealthy and conservative family didn’t approve of her being an artist and although she insisted on following her dream and stuck with it the traditional Japanese way forward to becoming an artist was not one which she was suited to. She had a fragile and obsessive temperament which meant that she needed to go her own way and find her own path rather than have her skills honed as a disciple of an already accepted master. After finishing her training she took off to New York, found what she needed in the wildness of the contemporary arts scene there and became a prominent and influential part of it, finding great support and friendship. It was an enormously productive time, full of freedom and abandonment to her vision, although she began to overtax her strength and her health suffered. This ill health finally led her back to Japan in 1973 and in 1977 she checked herself into the Seiwa hospital for the mentally ill where she has lived ever since. Not that this has stopped her working. She has a studio near the hospital and works for long and intense hours there still creative and productive at the age of 82. She has said, “If it were not for Art I would have killed myself a long time ago”. Her work has been her joy and salvation. She has placed herself and her inner life at the centre of everything that she does, pouring herself into it and working out her obsessions within it, taking inspiration from her hallucinations. It’s an inspiring life story of someone who has been a successful working artist for sixty four years so far and made wonderful things in spite of obstacles which would have stopped most people dead in their tracks.

Yayoi Kusama Kusama posing in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show 1963 Installation view, Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York © Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

Amazingly the current major retrospective at Tate Modern is the first time her work has been exhibited on a major scale in Britain. I found out about her very late when I looked into one of her magical mirrored boxes at Tate Liverpool and found myself in a whole new world. I was completely enchanted. The Tate Modern exhibition is a clear and well chosen selection of the work that she has done, allowing you to follow the path of her career. There is a huge range of work and there were some sculptures that I didn’t really get, but there was plenty that I did love and respond to. Some of the early drawings, collages and watercolours are intensely beautiful and meticulously worked, with jewel like colours and they were probably what I liked best of the works on paper. She has used mundane everyday objects in collage making a virtue of their repetitive designs, colours and patterns and there is a large work made up of closely packed small identical air mail stickers which I found very satisfying to look at.

Yayoi Kusama Self-Obliteration No.2 1967 © Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

There is an astonishing video made at a happening in New York in the sixties which should be required viewing for any young artist who imagines that they are being wild and controversial today. It is rough, grainy, erotic and totally out of control. The absolute antithesis of those early drawings which came out of the finely worked controlled Japanese artistic culture that she had been trained in.

There is a strange and unsettling space in which an ordinary living room has been covered in fluorescent stickers which seem to float in mid air while Kusama speaks from a television set. The fact that the spots seem to float in mid air rather than being attached to anything makes you wonder exactly what you are seeing.

Yayoi Kusama  Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011  © Yayoi Kusama  Photo credit: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography

Yayoi Kusama. Infinity mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011 © Yayoi Kusama Photo credit: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography.

Her most accessible and beautiful works are her mirrored infinity rooms. She has made a new one for the exhibition. You stand there completely transported into her world seeing reflections of yourself and the small coloured lights hanging around you in the darkness disappearing into the distance. I found it every bit as magical as that box which I looked into at Tate Liverpool, only now I was allowed inside. The chance to stand in that space alone would have made the visit worthwhile

A life well lived then, against all the odds, full of self expression and creativity. Proof if ever there was one that the saying “talent will out” is true. A woman to admire and respect.

Walking in my Mind. Hayward Gallery. 21-07-09

by Chiharu Shiota 塩田千春

This was a lovely idea. A group of artists were each given a room in the Hayward to fill. This simple premise gave the exhibition a playful quality, and a diversity, which I really liked. Some of it didn’t work for me but I suppose that was inevitable.
My favourite room was After the Dream by Chiharu Shiota. It was beautiful and dreamlike. You walked around the room through a curving tunnel made out of a cats cradle web, formed from dark string. In the centre of the room, viewed through the cats cradle, were five plain, papery, delicate dresses with the sleeves lifted towards each other, facing inwards, as though they were taking part in a still dance. It was like something from a fairytale and children were enjoying running round it while adults walked quietly with a sense of wonder. Shiota calls what she does drawing in the air and that describes it well.

Photo copyright Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

I also liked Thomas Hirschhorn’s room, Cavemanman. This was most definitely a return to childhood, an artists superden, a trail with four open spaces, caverns made from flattened cardboard boxes and masking tape. It seemed huge and had turning corners and ups and downs so that you made surprising discoveries as you went along and didn’t know what to expect or really understand what you were seeing. You had to guess and there were no right answers. When I was seven or eight I would have been beyond ecstatic to be allowed to make something like this!
I was looking forward to Yayoi Kusama’s room too, full of green turf and red spots and the trees along the south bank looked great with their flamboyant red spotted trunks.

YNG (Nara, Yoshitomo + graf) My Drawing Room (bedroom included) 2008 mixed media Photo by Keizo Kioku

Another thing which would have delighted me even more as a seven year old than it did now was Yoshitomo Nara‘s room, My Drawing Room, a small Japanese wendy house filled with everything he would have around him to work. It was as if he had just slipped out for a moment and we were allowed to sneak close, look though the windows and snoop.
Pipilotti Rist had made a room full of dreams and nightmares. A dark space where you sat and were spoken to by projected floating body parts, slowly moving and distorting thorough space. It was surreal and beautiful and distinctly odd. The kind of thing you half remember when you wake up, something which almost makes sense and makes you feel there is a secret there which you are almost grasping the meaning of.
I have been wondering what I would do with an empty room at the Hayward ever since.

This is sculpture. Tate Liverpool.15th May 2009.

This exhibition is a bit of a sculptures greatest hits, and as such it is rather predictable. You very much see what you expect to see and tick off famous pieces as you walk round. Usually the pieces on show were the predictable choices, or the iconic ones, depending on your point of view. It would have been a good way to introduce someone to sculpture who had no knowledge of it, although the labelling and information was poor.
There were some gems among the exhibits. A wonderful mirrored box made in 2007 by Yayoi Kusama kept me and a number of others enthralled as we looked into its holes and saw ourselves reflected amongst the kaleidoscopic lines, circles and colours in the interior. If I had seen nothing else but this I would have been happy. I was glad that my personal favourites Cornelia Parker and Richard Long were represented and it was fun to see elderly carousel projectors whirring away- a reminder of a time when they were cutting edge technology. A pale grainy Gilbert and George were also there as living sculptures on an elderly television, slowly getting sozzled on Gordons Gin. There was also a huge, delicate and beautiful Barbara Hepworth work, the largest she ever made as it was the only time she got hold of a tropical hardwood tree trunk big enough. A beautiful Modigliani head too. Lots to enjoy then, and a few things to turn your nose up at.
I had a good time downstairs taking photographs of Jacob and the Angel, an epic monolithic masterpiece by Epstein which I love.