August 29, 2012

Never Hide: Pop Art Deals With Difference

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“Pop is love, for it accepts everything.” The artist Robert Indiana was certainly on to something. In a 2011 interview with ARTINFO, Indiana revealed his dream of bringing LOVE to every U.S. city — his iconic metal sculptures of the word with a tilting “O,” that is. Indiana’s LOVE design has leapt off its original design on the Museum of Modern Art’s 1964 Christmas card and onto mugs, posters and even the cover of Erich Segal’s 1970 novel Love Story. Indiana is now working on sculptures based off Shepard Fairey’s iconic 2008 Obama HOPE poster. While he has yet to meet Fairey, he does cite President Obama as an inspiration. HOPE, like LOVE, comes in all sizes and colors.

Pop art is inclusive. In pop, the divergent converge — the avant-garde collides with kitsch, the old encounters the new, the loud meets the subtle, art meets commercialism — and that’s when the most exciting things happen.

The weird and wonderful work of another pop artist, Yayoi Kusama, has turned Louis Vuitton’s display windows worldwide into Infinity Mirror Rooms overrun with white tentacles spotted red. If you look hard enough amid the tendrils, you’ll find a surprisingly wearable pair of heels or handbag, all rigorously covered in spots. Or you might stumble upon another match that makes perfect sense: pristine copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which Kusama has reinterpreted in her surreal language of dots. Close by, television screens replay sleek videos of Kusama’s “happenings.” Kusama gained notoriety in the 1960s for riding a spotted horse through Central Park, and for painting spots on nude participants in various parts of New York City. The Kusama-themed stores are at once glamorous and menacing, wistful and rebellious wonderlands.

While Louis Vuitton’s merchandise isn’t exactly accessible — the spotted bags retail for US$1,360 to $3,650 — the art is. Art takes center stage in this collection, a collaboration between Kusama and Louis Vuitton’s creative director Marc Jacobs. (Kusama’s influence has undoubtedly rubbed off on Jacobs, who recently launched Dot, a new fragrance for his eponymous line.) Kusama’s dots dominate the designs, displacing Louis Vuitton’s traditional monogram. The venerable French fashion house has even developed an iPhone application that invites consumers to “reinvent reality” through Kusama’s eyes. Anything your phone hovers over gets covered in spots. Better yet, Louis Vuitton is the chief sponsor of Kusama’s first New York City retrospective in 15 years, on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Sept. 30.

At its best, pop art is redemptive. The Polka-Dot Princess’ triumphant return to the city where she established herself as an artist is the stuff of fairytales. Dots embody the nightmarish neurosis that prompted Kusama to check into a Japanese psychiatric hospital, where she still resides. But dots are also Kusama’s “personal medicine.” Plagued by hallucinations of spots since childhood, Kusama has said that she would have killed herself if not for art. Through her menacing and playful dots, she confronts her fears everyday. That takes a lot of courage, to say the least. Coupled with her electric-hued wigs and bold polka-dotted dresses, Kusama personifies the tagline of Ray Ban’s long-running advertising campaign — Never Hide.

Kusama’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton reminds me that great things can happen when very different worlds meet. In confronting difference, you define yourself; you learn about who you are, and who you want to be. And college is paradoxical; we’re all trying to fit in and stand out.

Diversity is good, as college admissions brochures, universally graced by genial groups of multi-ethnic students, would have you believe. And that’s true, as most Cornell students would know. Cornell scores fairly highly in ethnic diversity, according to the latest U.S. News report. At Cornell, nearly one in 10 undergraduates is an international student. But what we usually forget are the less visible differences, like values, interests and personalities­. The problem with diversity is that it makes things interesting, but not always comfortable.

If you’ve been abroad for some time, you’re probably familiar with culture shock. At best, its effects are amusing; at worst, they are terrifying. It is the sudden sting that makes you aware that you are different; it is the fear that you will not be understood. Kusama struggled, but she eventually found her artistic home in New York; when she later returned to her native Japan in the 1970s, she found it hopelessly conservative. I know that kind of discordance, to a smaller degree. I  grew up in Singapore, and I go home every year. As an excruciatingly shy freshman, overwhelmed by the snow and my foreign accent, I found talking to people so trying I began to avoid doing it. It got too easy. As Alex Turner, of the Arctic Monkeys, sings on the Submarine soundtrack, “I’m quite alright / hiding tonight.” But it’s not.

Never hide. I still have to tell myself that everyday. Always err on the side of kindness (or chance or hope or whatever you wish to call it) because you never know how hard someone else is trying, even after 129 failed attempts. I can tell you that it is worth the trouble. You might even save a life.

Original Author: Daveen Koh