The art of Yayoi Kusama is bold, colorful and extremely popular these days.
People flock to her exhibitions, kids play in her dotted pumpkins and everybody marvel at the magic of her infinity rooms. Yet, Kusama’s underpinning story is extremely dark.
I am actually surprised that many people never go beyond the fun visuals that her vibrant use of colors infuses. I wanted to rectify this a little and take you down the path of her self-obliteration…Don’t be frightened, she makes it a visual feast!
Freshly back from my trip to Japan, I visited the island of Naoshima where ferries, buses and cycling helmets are all branded with cheerful Kusama polka dots. She’s got a pop-up exhibition at stylish Ginza 6 shopping mall and her retrospective My Eternal Soul at Tokyo National Art Center has been packed since February.
Yayoi Kusama rightly deserves to be a national phenomenon in Japan but it’s the same story wherever she exhibits. Quite a feat for an 88-year old Japanese artist, wouldn’t you say?
Throw in that she is officially diagnosed with obsessive compulsive neurosis and checked herself in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill back in 1977, producing her art from there ever since and your admiration should grow many folds.
Yayoi Kusama is a self-declared obsessional artist.
Plagued with hallucinations since she was a young girl, the only way she can resist suicide and survive is by producing her all-encompassing art. With no distinction between her as an artist and the product of her art, this is the intensity we can’t help but feel striking us all.
Case in point at her Tokyo retrospective. The opening room is stacked from floor to ceiling with 132 canvases (approx. 2 meter x 2 meter) filling each of the large four walls.
What’s on the walls almost dwarfs the monumental flower sculptures, and these are big! This room definitely made me feel very small.
Everywhere you look, there are a multitude of colors, some of her signature infinity nets mixed with shapes reminiscent of aboriginal art, all engulfing your field of vision.
Yet, this is all recent work produced as visual expression of the horrors and terrors assailing her and threatening to obliterate her being.
Yayoi Kusama is known to sometimes spend 40 to 50 hours straight, painting her madness as the only way to resist her annihilating visions. Her endurance is probably what I connect most with. Her work is physical and hard, a way to stay alive against self-obliteration. Nothing coming easy, every day earned.
She likes to use red polka dots on a white background which reminds me of the King of the Mountain jersey that cyclists fight for in the Tour de France, going through the most gruelling fit of endurance. I wonder if Kusama knows about this but either way, she’s fighting her own uphill battle too.
Sometimes painting is not enough so she’s never shied away from a multidisciplinary approach, keeping polka dots and accumulation as recurrent themes.
Kusama titled many of her earlier works as Accumulations, a clear reference to the intensive labor she puts in her all-encompassing art.
From her early infinity net paintings from the late 1950’s/ early 1960’s (deserving a separate post), accumulation verging towards infinity has been revisited in a more sculptural way with her furniture pieces from the 1960’s onwards.
Kusama covered clothes, armchairs, tables and boats with countless hand sawn fabric “phalluses”, providing some clarity on her views about the male-dominated art world she experienced in NYC at the time and more than possible traumatic experiences in her childhood.
Her more recent furniture work in the 1990’s is no less disturbing. You can easily see how anybody sitting in this living room would be completely swallowed, or obliterated by the pattern.
In the 1960’s, Kusama organized art performances (Happenings) where participants were covered in dots until they visually merged with the dotted objects around them.
She did the same with dotted mannequins in the Tokyo retrospective where you get an additional zest of socio-political commentary on our consumption world, the polka dots as appropriate and fashionable stigmas.
And then, there is the leap from accumulation to infinity when Kusama starts using mirrors to project her art many folds and in all directions.
First, it happened with a ladder covered in hand sawn phalluses positioned between two mirrors at each extremity of the ladder. Impossible to photograph but, trust me, leaning over the bottom mirror basically opens up an expanded world along a now visually infinite ladder.
Her more recent Infinity Rooms (again subject of a separate post later on) make you to step in a small and finite space which nonetheless opens up an infinite sense of space as mirrors reflect in all directions until you see yourself disappear. Self-obliteration. In a beautiful way.
There is true genius in Kusama translating her obliterating pain in fun installations such as Obliteration Room. It starts as an all-white furnished room, progressively covered with polka dot stickers as each visitor is encouraged to make their own mark until the entire room is fully obliterated with colors. Click here for a time lapse video from Tate.
The sticky dots start as figures (her visions) until they obliterate the ground and surrounding structures. The resounding result is a joyous victory of colors.
Kusama uses her madness as both object and subject of her art. For our delight and her survival. Not something to forget as we celebrate her prolific work, don’t you think?
If you’ve enjoyed the read, learnt something new or liked the art and pictures, please consider subscribing to the blog, sharing it with like-minded friends and relatives and letting me know your thoughts on your experience of Yayoi Kusama in the comment box. Thank you.
Yayoi Kusama’s major retrospective My Eternal Soul at the Tokyo National Art Center is on until May 22, 2017.
Infinity Mirrors is still showing for a few more days until May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC.
Akira Tatehata, Kusama as Autonomous Surrealist, 1998
Lynn Zelevantsky, Driving Image: Yayoi Kusama in New York, 1998
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
Question Ingrid : no link between japoneses red dot flag and her work ? Thank you for all your posts ! Lové them
Virginie, thank YOU for reading my posts, I am delighted you enjoy them.
Your comment about the red dot of the Japanese flag is really interesting although she’s generally more interested in patterns of polka dots than one dot in isolation as repetition is what she finds therapeutic when the visions come. She also has a very troubled relationship with her own country so I don’t think there is any nationalistic undercurrent to her art. She was raised in quasi-fascist rural Japan, hated her very traditional art training in Kyoto and could not wait to leave to go to NYC. When she was forced to come back to Japan, she was ruined and depressed which led her to check herself in a mental institution, so again she was almost shielding herself from Japan. She also hates when people find her art “cute” or kawaii as she does not want to be associated with the new generation of Japanese artists such as Murakami. Still, I agree, the red dotS are omnipresent. I wonder if subconsciously that’s why Kusama uses it often, as if despite trying to be anything but a traditional Japanese artist, she can’t negate her Japanese identity nonetheless. Great question!
Each week I look forward to seeing where your going to take us, and this brought mixed feelings, as I love her art but also see that it was gained through a lot of anguish, which makes me sad for her
Dear Brenda, I am so happy to take you on a journey each week 🙂 Best compliment I can get, thank you!
I share your view on Kusama, I love the energy I feel when I am in the presence of her art but the pain and madness which enabled these works of art to be realised is too often left out of the story. Having looked at many exhibitions and works of hers and having read quite a few essays researching for a paper I have to submit, I choose to see the incredible will Kusama has when faced with her demons: she is relentless in her paintings, reproducing her visions until she vanquishes them and in the process winning over them. I think that’s quite a victory, albeit a bitter sweet one. At least, unlike other people affected by such illnesses, she has found a way to survive and channel her experiences in her art.
I always love dots for my clothes and more colored dots so how don’t love her Art..I didn’t know about her so sad story and her madness.I love these idea about japan flag that can be inspired her.
I regret to have not visited island in Japan with big red pumpskins..her colored hair for her age is not surprising for an artist like her. Love the video and love how you try to explain things and details…Thank you for this lesson…I try to remember her name:Yahoi Kusama for my own knowledge and I don’t forget her” happy” style .
Thank you, Dominique. I think many people don’t suspect that the cause of her genius is rooted in such sadness and madness. As I mentioned in my response to Virginie, I am not sure one red dot on the Japanese flag is the inspiration for Yayoi Kusama as she is more interested in patterns and repeated motifs and she always had mixed feelings about traditional Japan. I am not sure about “happy”: there are definitely more shades than meet the eye, that’s for sure!
It is troubling ! The bright colors, the rounds are so present in the work of YAYOI KUSAMA that it is difficult to imagine that she sad until the madness !! I would have imagined a gay artist, freed …
This work should have been a good therapy !!
Often we admire such works without imagining the suffering they hide !!
I had already seen photos of this artist, completely immersed in his decor, with colored hair very fluo … and always rounds … I did not know the story of his life!
Your hike on the island of Naoshima must have delighted you !!
Absolutely Marie-Annick. I think a lot of people don’t really go past the cheerful and bright patterns and never suspect the pain she feels and that she manages to convert into these patterns as a fighting mechanism. I am glad I am contributing to making her story known, in my small capacity because I really think it adds another dimension to how we view her work. Naoshima was magical indeed – there were other artists involved so I will write a separate post about this Art Island. Thank you for reading and commenting.
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[…] When it comes to colorful art, Yayoi Kusama pretty much obliterated 2017. People flocked to her travelling exhibitions, queued hours to spend 30 seconds in her mirrored infinity rooms and used her bright patterned artworks and polka dots to take awesome selfies and be happy. Quite an awesome accomplishment for art that is produced as the only way Kusama found to resist suicide and survive the hallucinations that have plagued her life since being a young girl. “With no distinction between her as an artist and the product of her art, this is the intensity we can’t help but feel striking us all” was how I described it in my blog last year. […]