Happenings were very popular in the 1960s and early seventies. They were part of the hippie culture of free expression, free love (i.e. sex), hallucinogenic drugs, poetry readings (where anything that rhymed was derided), tie-died cheesecloth shirts and free love (i.e. sex) – ah, I already said that, but it does bear mentioning twice, and clothes were frequently removed to facilitate it. Those who could not get laid had their bodies painted instead. Body painting was an integral part of happenings much as face painting is now an integral and ubiquitous part of children’s parties and garden fêtes.
Happenings, although meant to be spontaneous expressions of alternative culture, were in fact as spontaneous as a premiere league football match with everybody turning up at a pre-arranged venue ready to head bang, smoke some weed, drop some acid and take their clothes off, although not necessarily in that order – I’m talking about the hippies here, not the footballers. It was pretty groovy, man. All you had to do was join in and drop out.
One of the original initiators of happenings and one of their most famous exponents was Yoko Ono, but another Japanese woman was at it too. Her work can be seen in Yayoi Kusama The Dutch Years 1965 – 1970, a small retrospective at the always worth-visiting Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam, a short tram ride from the centre of Rotterdam. Why Schiedam? Well it was here in 1967 that one of her most notorious happenings . . . err . . . happened.
Yayoi Kusama, although not as widely known as Yoko One – but then she didn’t marry John Lennon – was an important and significant figure in the underground movements in both Holland and the USA. The Dutch were ahead of the curve when it came to sex and drugs with their red light districts and euphemistically named coffee shops. So much so that when Yayoi wanted to do her naked body events in New York they were frequently banned.
It could be said that the current exhibition in Schiedam is in two halves. There are the pieces of art and there is the documentation. Ms Kusama seems to have been fairly keen on sex and many of the exhibits are phallic symbols and the largest piece consists of dozens of 30cms chrome balls neatly arranged on the floor. One of the most striking exhibits is a huge globe nearly two meters across covered in red rubber gloves. It hangs from the ceiling and can be seen as thousands of dangling phalluses or an over-endowed cow.
Impressive though the artworks are, I was much more interested in the documentation of events in Delft and Schiedam in the late 1960s. There are lots of photographs, printed matter and videos. The photo I liked best was Delft artist Jan Schoonhoven standing naked, except for his glasses and shrivelled grey socks, having his body daubed with coloured blobs of paint by Ms Kusama. Mr Schoonhoven currently has an exhibition running, which we reviewed, at the Prinsenhof in Delft without a phallic symbol in evidence – not one that I spotted anyway.
The now ninety-four-year-old Yayoi Kusama and her work seem very much of another time, but as a reflection of an era which some of us remember with a certain affection (although other, I guess, with a certain embarrassment), it is well worth seeing. Michael Hasted 2nd October 2023
Yayoi Kusama The Dutch Years 1965 – 1970 continues at the Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam until 25th February 2024