Category Archives: Pop Art

Yoyoi Kusama, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963)


As if to save those analysts the bother, Yayoi Kusama has already labelled Aggregation as part of her Sex Obsession series. She describes the white growths as so many phalluses.

So you might see her boat as a metaphor for the conscious mind, floating above unconscious depths. Except here, the mind has been overrun by erotic symbolism.

Not only has the rower lost control, she has vanished, leaving behind a single shoe. Her sexualised world view appears to have swallowed her up.

At the risk of pathologising, this work could well dramatise one of the breakdowns which have kept Yayoi Kusama resident in a mental hospital since the late 1970s. Certainly, it is frightening.

Whatever the artist’s actual condition, one might employ a phrase once suggested by psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. He called schizophrenia a “theatre of terror”*.

And this trauma scene is theatrical. The scene is wallpapered with images of the boat. So the boat itself contrasts with its diminished image and appears live and auric**.

The other protagonists worth mentioning are Donald Judd, who helped Kusama salvage the boat, and Andy Warhol, who three years later was to follow her lead and produce wallpaper.

Such decorative repetition might also draw medical attention. But you can be sure it has nothing to do with the boat, and everything to do with what might be in that dark water.

Aggregation can be seen in Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern until June 5 2012. See gallery website for more details. References: * cited in Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition; ** idea explored in Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Richard Hamilton, The Treatment Room, (1983-1984)

Today’s sad news has prompted me to share an artwork-related anecdote. At Richard Hamilton’s Serpentine show in 2010 the central piece was a stark, cell-like hospital room.

Next to the sort of bed patients get strapped down to was a stainless steel sink and if memory serves a bucket. Behind a glass shield to one side was a control panel (!). Over the bed was a TV monitor.

Here could be seen former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, giving a speech with chilling conviction. It was hard to think of an environment with more menace.

But art show launches attract all sorts. While looking at this disturbing work I became aware of a Barbour jacket type who was accompanied by a smaller, much older man.

The former was providing a commentary for that latter and, also for some reason, for a portable voice recorder which he held.

“This is a very optimistic work” I heard him say, or words to that effect. “You see the patient must have got better and got out of bed and walked off.”

Anyone else might have said the patient had met a sticky end. Or would they?

I’ve never come across a better or worse example of the subjectivity of art and I wonder what else this chap went on to say about the other works in the show.

Because the meaning of later works by Hamilton, about say Israel or Iraq, was becoming even more explicit. Perhaps I saw for myself just why. Or perhaps that was a one off.

Anyway, RIP Richard Hamilton, a man responsible for of some of the 20th century’s most resonant works of art. I hope we can remember whatever we think he was getting at.

Interview: Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing, See What Beauty He Hath Wrought

Sixties Pop Art had a “culpable banality” and Andy Warhol’s sculpture of Brillo boxes was a “real travesty”, according to one of the movement’s pioneers, Gerald Laing.

The Scottish artist features heavily in a new show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, in which Pop Art finds politics. Many of the works are from the past ten years.

“Of course we were seduced by the American glossiness,” says Laing. “We were emerging from an intolerable period in Britain. You know the sixties were not all fun. There were plenty of bombed buildings everywhere and plenty of worn out cars, you know. Everything was crumbling and hopeless and very few people wore miniskirts.”

It puzzles him why musicians, rather than artists, were the leading voices of protest. “The only pop artist I can remember at all who was involved with politics in Britain was Derek Boshier and in America was James Rosenquist. The rest skated past it.”

Laing’s own attempts to engage with current affairs floundered when he tried to sell a painting of the Kennedy assassination. “My dealer wouldn’t show it, so it was folded up and put in the garden shed. He said it was a downer and he didn’t want anything to do with it and it stayed there for 30 years.” Now the painting is recognised as the only representation of the shooting completed at the time.

Instead, it was paintings of all-American girls and Navy pilots which helped Laing make his name. But these images would later haunt him as, 50 years later, allied forces invaded Iraq and bombers flew raids from 35,000 ft. “It was not exactly a heroic act,” he says, “but it was being carried out by the people I used to paint.”

The souring of the American dream prompted Laing to return to painting after many years making sculpture and the resulting series, War Paintings, is now on show for the first time in a UK public space. Tony Blair, Abu Graibh and Warhol’s Brillo boxes all feature.

“When I painted Blair in front of the destruction of Baghdad and I’m contrasting it with what I imagine his living room in Notting Hill to be like. I’m thinking ‘you’re not going to get away with this’, because although we can’t change anything we can commemorate it and it won’t go away,” he says.

Laing offers a potted history of war painting, from illuminated manuscripts up until the horrifying realism of Otto Dix, complete with a highly entertaining digression.

“I dreamt I was picking the Bayeux Tapestry to bits with a pair of nail scissors about a week ago, and I actually pulled the arrow our of Harold’s eye,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t sound very politically correct anyway.”

Perhaps it was a comment on the visual appeal of warfare today. “The awful thing is that the war images, the pyrotechnics we now have, have an awful beauty. The little circles of phosphorus popping out like pearls and the lurid colours and the effects of the smoke afterwards.

“In fact I’m thinking of Constable and what little opportunity he had compared with now,” he jokes.

But Constable would these days have little trouble getting a show; Laing was not so fortunate with his War Paintings. “I couldn’t get anyone to show them. People ran a mile. I was surprised at how pusillanimous they were,” he says.

Whereas most people “chickened out”, Laing is keen to point out that the only “people in the establishment” who “wholeheartedly backed it” are from the Wolverhampton venue and the National Army Museum in Chelsea which, he feels, “is extraordinary.”

“You have to follow the party line or you’re out on your ear,” he says at another point. “You know I don’t think that’s the job of an artist to follow anybody’s party line. I think it’s quite a good thing to be out on your ear too if you’re an artist.”

Consequently, Laing has a lot of time for younger talents. “I think there are two things happening that are really cheering,” he says.

“Young artists are politically engaged and they do have much more information than we had.” The 74-year-old artist even has a “fairly close relationship” with a number of street artists.

But Laing is joined by a number of figures from his generation for the show at Wolverhampton. Derek Boshier, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth and Clive Barker all contribute protest work. If the times they are a-changing, again, it is better late than never.

Written for Culture24.