I am swimming; the water is red. White dots float on the surface. I blink. I am back in the room. The wall in front of me is painted in the signature pattern of Yayoi Kusama. I get up, blink again, and make my way to the door, knowing that the next room will be equally immersive, yet completely different.
You see, the world of Kusama reminds me the main idea behind the Being John Malcovich movie. Her work makes you feel like you are in an elevator, stuck between two floors, and the moment the doors open you peek at a slither of someone’s mind. Kusama’s work transports you straight into her mind, forces you to experience what she feels, see what she sees, be what she is. Kusama is one of the most inspirational artists I have ever seen, not only for her art, but for her actual life story.
I first encountered her work at the Walk In My Mind exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. I remember being overwhelmed by her art, the intensity of the room. It was covered in her signature red with white polka dots, with oversized plastic spheres with the same pattern everywhere. I was uncertain if I liked the intrusiveness of her room, the unease it created. I moved to the next room, and by the end, I decided that Kusama’s room was the most memorable one. I walked to the gallery shop, got her catalogue, and read the full book in one sitting.
That was 3 years ago. Since then, I followed her work online, and of course when I heard that she would have a retrospective at Tate Modern, I dug my Membership Card out, cued up, and walked into the familiar world of one of the most truly interesting artists I have seen.
What I love about Kusama is her relentless exploration of her inner state. To fully grasp her art, one must know her personal story.
Born in a provincial town in Japan and drafted in a factory to support the war effort during World War II, Kusama’s individuality was at odds with her social surroundings. She rejected the Nihonga Japanese drawing technique, taught herself about European and American Avant Garde art, and in the cataclysmic state of Japan in the aftermath of the war, Kusama developed her own style, drawing apocalyptic imagery, using the scarce resources she could find (household paint mixed with sand and seed sacks for canvases).
She kept exploring different techniques with various subject matters, developing an almost surrealistic view of ordinary items; her obsessive nature started forming, with carefully worked surfaces, hieroglyphic, tiny details, and an emerging vocabulary of forms that would make up the language of her art: eyes, dots, spiky networks and sperm-like shapes start appearing in her work. As her work began getting critical acclaim in Japan, Yayoi is moving to the United States, where she radically transformed her work. Her Infinity Net work is a triumph of the human perseverance, an almost compulsive body of work with an enviable technical facility and stamina. For these works, Kusama made small indentations on white paint that was layered on a black surface, with endlessly repeated, scalloped brush strokes. The effect is absolutely awe-inspiring, with the hallucinatory effect that accompanies most of her work.
It is integral to know at this point that during her stay in the US, Kusama experimented with drugs; a lot of drugs. She experienced hallucinatory states, and her perception of the world was skewed. It must have been very challenging for her to marry the three worlds in her life: the Japanese background; the American counterpart; and the drug-induced reality.
The Accumulation Sculptures and the Sex Obsession Sculptures are another form of this challenge, and the repetitive obsession that can be found in her work. In them, she covers everyday with a repeated motif of symbols: the stuffed fabric phalli are covering worlds, externalising her internal overtake from anxieties surrounding sex; and the macaroni, externalising her internal disgust at the over abundance of food during the post-war boom in the United States. She followed these works by her Aggregation show, where a phalli-encrusted boat laid in a room covered with a repeated motif wallpaper (3 years before her contemporary and Pop Art God Andy Warhol made his Cow Wallpaper work). This was the first of her many full-scale environments, where the viewer is immersed in her obsessively charged vision.With these works, Kusama takes an internal obsession and projects it into the physical world. This is one of the qualities that draws me to her.
In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan, just to experience a paradox: she felt like a stranger in her own land. When she was in New York, she was a foreigner, a Japanese girl; but now in Japan, she was a different kind of foreigner; a weird girl. Someone that did not fit the mould. Her unsuccessful attempts to introduce her naked happenings to a conservative Tokyo pushed her into setting herself up as an art dealer, while she was privately making collages, inspired by her platonic relationship with American artist Joseph Cornell. However, when Cornell died, the mounting pressures of her daily life, the difficult transition to her unfamiliar home, and the folding of her art dealership proved to be too much for Kusama.
In 1977, Kusama’s physical and psychological vulnerability made her voluntarily admit herself herself to a hospital, where she has remained until the present day; and this is the point that I find truly inspirational: Kusama not only continued to make work, but produced some of her finest, most powerful and successful pieces since then. She has made art, published novels, a poetry collection and an autobiography. She has a studio right across the hospital, and in the morning she goes there, works with her team, and then returns back in the evening.
I genuinely find this inspiring. For me it shows how art can be a tool to release inner demons, to cope with the reality of the unreal, of the imagined, of the intangible. She used her obsessive nature, her distorted view of the world, her weakness and strengths in ways that show the human intellectual greatness.
This is apparent in the electrifying atmosphere of her room-sized installations. As Kusama adjusted to the confined living arrangements as a voluntary inpatient, her work transports you into similar environments.
In I’m Here, But Nothing, you walk into a room, and suddenly you are in someone’s living room. However, something is odd; really odd. The room is darkened, and the bourgeois surroundings are covered with small, fluorescent dots. For Kusama, the polka dot can be visual shorthand to signify her hallucinatory visions. During her own hallucinatory episodes, Kusama sensed the physical world as overtaken by endlessly repeated forms. The room is her effort to visualise and re-stage the experience, and for us, it is an experiential understanding of how she saw the world around her.
However, my favourite room was the Infinity Mirror Room-Filled With The Brilliance Of Life. One of Kusama’s enduring obsessions has been the depiction of infinite space. In this room, she invites us to experience the infinite with her, to suspend ourselves from our senses and accompany her to her ongoing journey of self-obliteration. The room was so beautiful, so breathtaking, that I really did not want to leave. It felt like being suspended in space, so calm, so serene. I absolutely loved it.
The main reason I admire her work is the fact that she managed to channel all the negative feelings and aspects of her life into something creative. She managed to cope with the ugly by creating something beautiful; and for me, this is the one-line answer to ‘is art really necessary?’.
Yayoi Kusama is now all the rage, with a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, a documentary on her, and a renewed interest in her back catalogue.
So, you can expect to see more of her polka dots around. I personally can not wait!