I was absentmindedly scrolling through Instagram when I came across a post by Tate Modern, announcing that they will be opening an exhibition dedicated to Yayoi Kusama to mark the Art Gallery’s 20th anniversary. For those unfamiliar with her work, she is a Japanese artist famous for her immersive mirror room installations and most famously known for her Infinity Mirror Rooms. I studied her years ago when I was still enrolled in afternoon art classes – I must have been 14 or 15. I always thought her work was fascinating, especially when I had first come across it back then. It was so different than anything I had seen and that was so intriguing to me. From the abundance in pattern and colour, to her own eclectic look; I was captivated.
Yayoi Kusama lived through the Contemporary Art period, as well as the Pop Art, Minimalism and Feminist Art movements. She primarily works in sculpture and installation, alongside painting, fashion, film and performance. She had two films come out, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration in 1968 and Kusama: Infinity in 2018. Kusama’s Self-Obliteration is an experimental film by the artist and filmmaker Jud Yalkut. Through the use of polka dots, the artist conceals both people and animals in the film, along with everything in her surroundings. This is done as a metaphor for giving up your own identity and becoming one with the universe, as a form of “self-obliteration”. In contrast, Kusama: Infinity is a Documentary that touches upon her journey from a conservative Japan upbringing to her road to fame in the States during the 1960s. It touches upon her earning the recognition she so deeply deserved amidst her fight against racism, sexism and her life-long battle with mental illness.
The artist’s childhood marked a dark path in her mental wellbeing. As a child, she was physically abused by her own mother, while her interest in making art was completely looked down upon. Her mother would tear her drawings apart and was constantly discouraging her dreams of becoming a professional artist someday. Her mother’s tendency to tear her drawings away from her, before she was even able to finish them sparked an obsession for the artist to always be in a rush when working on something. She would always feel like someone would come in and take her unfinished work away from her. Moreover, her parent’s marriage was falling apart because of her father’s infidelity and Kusama was forced to spy on him and his lovers. Her mother would force her child to watch her own father cheat on her with multiple women and that ultimately caused her to have a deep-rooted opposition to sex throughout her life.
“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space and be reduced to nothingness.”
– Yayoi Kusama
Kusama experienced her first hallucination as a child. That same hallucination brought about her signature polka dot motif. At the age of 10, she created a drawing that had the image of her mother against a background and the entire drawing was covered in different sized polka dots. Those polka dots are prime representations of what she had seen in her hallucination and they symbolise the infinity of our universe. This was the start of her alternate reality and a representation of what she would see and experience through it during her lifetime. Ironically, for someone who has suffered such a dark past, her art never gave that away; the colour and liveliness it exudes does not suggest struggle in any type of way. Yet that same colour and liveliness are the truest representations of her struggles.
“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my work in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease.”
– Yayoi Kusama
One thing I found out while doing my research for this blog post is that Kusama had reached out to fellow female artist Georgia O’Keeffe during her early days as an artist. O’Keeffe was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century and at the time, one of the only female figures of their art scene. Kusama asked for advice on how to succeed in the art world that was so deeply dominated by male artists. I found this to be a very pleasant surprise, as Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the artists I also personally admire and the artist I had written my first blog post for Crop Up on. Kusama had asked her, “I’m only on the first step of the long difficult life of being a painter. Will you kindly show me the way?” O’Keeffe counselled as well as mentored her and went as far as to persuade her own personal art dealer to buy some of Kusama’s work. It was after following her advice that Kusama had made the bold move to the United States.
“If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”
– Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s desire to create was always said to be greater than her desire to die. She attempted suicide on several occasions during her lifetime but failed every time. After returning to Japan in the 1970s, she checked herself in a mental hospital, in which she has been living in ever since. Her own art studio is within walking distance from the hospital and her time has been split between the two ever since. The doctors were had an interest in art therapy as a form of healing and so it was undoubtedly a perfect match.
“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
– Yayoi Kusama
Fast forward to the present, Yayoi Kusama’s legacy will forever live on for generations to come. She is considered the most successful living female artist, with her exhibits being one of the most popular as she is certainly a crowd favourite. Kusama holds the highest auction prices of any living female artist, yet the highest of all female artists is held by none other than her own mentor and friend Georgia O’Keeffe. She is a pure representation of perseverance, determination and will for success. When she could not afford art supplies as a child, she would find materials around the house that would allow her to work. In fact, for some of her earliest paintings that can now be found in art galleries around the world, she was using jute sacking as support to complete her work.
Kusama spent her whole life disassembling and pulling apart her own identity in the search of self-obliteration. Her polka dots symbolise the sun, moon, earth and stars and stand to represent her inner world of passion and internal turmoil. Her polka dots are what make her so instantly recognisable globally and what gave her such success in her life, both on a personal and professional level. To put it in her own words:
“Our earth is only one polka dot amongst a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
– Yayoi Kusama
Written by Zoe Socratous.