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In the Frame for March 2013: Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Tulipes de Shangri-La’

In the Frame usually showcases a work of art from the Archives & Museum’s own collections each month, but the list of places to which it has occasionally gone ‘on holiday’ to highlight something held elsewhere is growing. To Flanders, Ontario and Northern Ireland, we now add Lille, the 2004 European Capital of Culture. There a work of street art by Yayoi Kusama, entitled Tulipes de Shangri-La, sprouts incongruously from a concrete esplanade near the international railway station.

An exhibition of Kusama’s work at Tate Modern was the point of departure for a series of posts on this blog in March and April last year. Her story - one of a battle since childhood against nightmares of obliteration, hallucinations of polka-dot patterns pervading and threatening to destroy not only her, but also her family, her home and her world – is profoundly moving, not least because she has chosen to fight this battle by deploying her artistic talents to depict these very patterns. This decision is reminiscent of the one made by Vincent van Gogh, as communicated by him to his sister in a letter of 1888: “We need good cheer and happiness, hope and love. The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colour, well-arranged, resplendent”.1

This is not the place to resume the ongoing discussion of the hackneyed ‘myth of the mad artist’, as if the significance of Kusama’s artistic output (let alone that of Van Gogh’s output) was reducible to that discussion. Yet the word ‘resplendent’ well describes Tulipes de Shangri-La. The scale and colour of the work is suggestive of something actually poisonous or otherwise dangerous. To those of a certain generation who, in their teenage years, imbibed British science fiction writing of the 1950s and 60s, there is something slightly Wyndhamesque about it. In any event, there is no doubt that the work brims with vitality. It is tempting to detect a further layer of meaning in its concrete, ostensibly inhospitable setting, as if it were representative of the artist’s own flowering in the face of adversity. Whatever else may be the case, Tulipes de Shangra-La has certainly become emblematic of Lille’s urban regeneration.

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