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?
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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.