Art galleries nowadays work hard to connect children with the visual arts. Over the years at QAGOMA - the Queensland Art Gallery and its Gallery of Modern Art - our son and his friends have built white Lego-like towers, made masks, constructed cardboard buildings and painted faces. But I’d have to say these experiences have been obliterated by the obliteration room, which the gallery is encoring at GOMA this year.
The obliteration room, first shown at the gallery in 2002, is worth experiencing a couple of times, whether you have children or not. It doesn’t obliterate children, just by the way, or give them a chance to obliterate you, however tempting that may be for both at this end of the long summer holiday. It’s a simple concept, a perfectly white room, perhaps with a white couch, white piano, this time a white kitchen, a window. When you arrive, you’re given a sheet of coloured dot stickers and you put your dots wherever you want. You can try to make a pattern, as I did, but like everything else in the room, it will be obliterated. You can line up and get another sheet of dots, and you’ll want to.
The obliteration room is the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama who’s having a late stellar career. At 85, and still living in the Japanese psychiatric hospital she moved into 40 years ago – she experiences hallucinations associated with depersonalisation disorder – it seems Kusama understands us better than we understand ourselves. While in the 50s and 60s living in New York, she achieved some notoriety for oddness, she was likely ahead of her time. She’s now found worldwide critical and popular acclaim, and the Queensland Art Gallery was among the first to recognise her strange and compelling vision.
In novel-writing, there’s a school of thought that says the novel isn’t written until the reader reads it. The reader writes, or rewrites, the novel. I don’t like this school of thought right now, when I have a manuscript that’s not quite written due at a publisher. The notion that it won’t be written until it’s read makes me slightly sick. I want it written. Yesterday. But the obliteration room is a pure idea and it gives your children, and you – in the time-lapse video of the last show, there are many more adults dotting than kids – the opportunity to be both viewer and artist.
Curator of Contemporary Asian Art at QAGOMA Reuben Keehan says Kusama’s work appeals because “simple ideas are often the best.” Keehan also says Kusama is in vogue now because we live in a more interactive world, with news and tv shaped by us, and social media connecting us. With Kusama’s work, “people get a chance to shape the way art is done,” he said.
But there’s a key difference between the obliteration room and social media. The obliteration room is actually social in a way that social media are not. In a sense Kusama nods towards social media and then takes us beyond its impoverished and impoverishing ways of connecting us. We are there physically with our fellows sticking dots. It’s as if the artist in her work has understood where we’ve come to in our disconnected internet-connected world, our hankerings and anxieties, and is giving us back to ourselves.
Often in Australia we see ourselves as net importers of cultural experience but the obliteration room has been exported from our gallery to galleries all over the world, from the Tate Modern in London to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, so that over 3 million people have now had the most satisfying experience of sticking dots in a white room somewhere.
The word obliteration means total destruction. We destroy in order to make something new. If you’re thinking this way at the moment, nearing the end of our long summer holiday break, if you're feeling like total destruction, about the house, the things you have to do, life, get the keys, some shoes, crackers, and go. You won’t regret it.