Taking Conservative Chinese Parents To See Art: Yayoi Kusama @ The National Gallery Singapore

One of my personal favorite things in the world to do is wander around galleries, and occasionally I bring my parents, who are educated but not particularly avante-garde. Do you have conservative Chinese parents? Have you ever tried to introduce them to modern art? This is a review of how safe/challenging one modern artists' exhibit might be to them.


The Artist

The artist as a young polka-dotted woman

The artist as a young polka-dotted woman

Yayoi Kusama is one of the world's most well-known and influential modern pop artists. A contemporary of Andy Warhol, George Segal and Yoko Ono, she is best known for her iconic polka dots, pumpkins, "infinity nets", and mirrored infinity rooms, in which she explores color, form and space through repeating key motifs.

The parents had never heard of her. We went to see her retrospective, YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, at the National Gallery of Singapore, where she has an exhibition running until early September 2017.

The Reaction

The Yayoi Kusama style of polka dotted everything and “infinite nets” are thankfully a pretty accessible aesthetic. There was definitely enough stuff for Conservative Chinese Parents to admire and coo appreciatively at their beauty.

They especially liked the Infinity Mirrored Room - Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008), which transforms her net/dot paintings into an immersive sensory experience that transports you into an infinitely repeating, expanded space.

Also, a lot of her themes regarding escaping the confines of Asian culture, only to find yourself an outsider in American culture, were things my particular brand of Chinese Conservative Parents could relate to.


However, some of Kusama’s stuff from the 60s - including fashion show photographs where the dresses had the boob or crotch areas cut out - elicited some clucks of disapproval.

There was some mild discomfort with themes of mental illness. And there was that specific period where she sewed "soft phalluses" onto everything. 


“What’s a phallus?” Dad asked. “Like a penis,” I replied.
“What?” “A penis.”
“Oh. Hmm. Does she really like penises?” “No, the placard says she was trying to get over her fear of them.”
“So she covered things in them?” “Yes, kind of like immersion therapy.” “The Japanese are weird.”


“Wait, what’s a phallus?” Mom asked five minutes later. “A penis.”
“Peanuts?” “No, peeee-niiiissss” “Oh my!”
“Haha, that’s what we were talking about just now!” Dad interjected. “Did you think we were just saying penis?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know what’s going on! This is too deep for me! Are we going to the next room?"


The Rating

PG - Parent Guidance advised.

While most of the show is at least "pretty" in an easy-to-understand way, Conservative Chinese Parents will need a little help interpreting and then softening-for-palatable-consumption some of the themes. Otherwise, besides a couple of 60s-style nudes and the PENIS THINGS, there’s nothing about Yayoi Kusama that will particularly offend their sensibilities.

They will like that they can take pictures next to a lot of fun stuff.



The Museum

The National Gallery of Singapore consists of two beautifully renovated old buildings connected to each other. Besides the rotating exhibits of renowned international artists, the National Gallery also hosts a more permanent collection of works by Wu Guanzhong - whose classical Chinese painting-inspired landscapes updated for the modern era will be a sure fire hit with any Chinese Conservative Parent - and several classy restaurant establishments, including two with Michelin rankings.

Go to The National Gallery of Singapore website to see its opening hours and current exhibits.