Since the late 1990s, Yayoi Kusama has been the subject of a remarkable re-evaluation. This process began with a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1998 that, under the title 'Love Forever', focused on the time Kusama spent in New York City between 1958 and 1968.
It extended through to a survey exhibition at Le Consortium in Dijon in 2000 and several retrospectives in Japan, as well as her participation in many major international exhibitions. This increased visibility was matched by an equally increased interest in her work by the art market. The artist's pop installations incorporating elements of the radicalism and cuteness of the 1960s, and her documentary videos of 1960s performances - in which she addressed the audience directly disregarding the taboos of the time - have struck a chord with artists and critics, as well as with today's youth.
Kusama's career can be broken down into three distinct phases: her time spent in New York in the 1950s and 1960s; a period spent mostly in Japan from the mid-1970s until the 1980s; and her return to international attention from the late-1990s onwards. During the first period, although she was recognised and highly regarded as an artist who broke new ground in various fields, Kusama failed to establish herself within the context of European and American modernism. And while the work she produced in Japan throughout the 1980s had elements that were so typically postmodern that they could perhaps be described as perfect examples of the style, this latter work still retained many of the clichés of the 1960s (due, perhaps, to the fact that it was postmodern avant la lettre), and for this reason was perceived by many at the time as 'passé' or retrograde.
Today, attention is once again focused on the 1960s, including a return to the utopianism of that period. There are several reasons for this: one is perhaps the separation between bio-physiological and physical reality derived mainly from our information-driven society. We live in a world of dual realities and survive by reconciling the two. We are overwhelmed by an excess of information, and, as information, knowledge and desire seem to escape our control or authorship. It is harder than ever to establish and maintain integrity or a distinct identity. The result is a separation between ourselves and the world at large. The rise in the number of cases of schizophrenia - a condition in which individuals are unable to communicate effectively with other people and the outside world - suggests that there is an increasing number of people, particularly of a young age, who experience reflexive reactions and obtain snippets of information yet are unable to integrate the two. This lack of integration manifests itself in the form of otaku (extreme obsession with manga and anime) culture and hikikomori (acute social withdrawal) mania, and leads to the kind of behaviour in which people seek to reaffirm their identity through some form of physical activity (constantly talking on mobile phones or sending emails as a means of reassuring themselves that they are connected to someone else or to the outside world).
For Kusama, who herself suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder and various other minor psychological conditions, art production was connected to living itself. The obsessive act of materialising through manual labour the fear she experienced in her hallucinations - a world overrun by polka dots and nets - enabled her to preserve her own psychological balance and maintain a relationship with the world. The dots and nets she wove everywhere were part of an attempt to establish a 'distance' between herself and the world by creating a 'surface' between the two. Although at first glance they appear to have been produced through a monotonous series of repetitions, each of the negative polka dots is overflowing with nothingness. Likewise, each mesh is different from the other, reflecting a tendency towards overreaction that is a part of the artist's makeup. By making this sensually receptive experience her trademark, Kusama came up with a way of resisting her 'loss of a sense of reality'. The white, monochrome Net paintings, in particular, feature a base of an intricate, tactile matter that resembles knitted fabric completely devoid of depth, over which a light veil has been placed. The surface in front of one's eyes and the layers below seem to be at odds with each other. Of all her series of works, these paintings, produced on an overwhelmingly large scale, have a peculiar significance.
'Active' repetitions are a method Kusama was forced to adopt in order to relativise her life as a 'thing'. The keen relationship between her work and her life has also enabled her to maintain a certain distance from the commercial aspects of art making. At the same time, Kusama's production of independent or self-sufficient works in order to maintain a sense of integrity represents a method that is the complete opposite of this. She seeks to throw into confusion, whip into a frenzy and stir up every surface in the vicinity of her work.
Kusama thinks of hallucinations as moments of rapture that assault our senses within a process of self-destruction or self-diffusion. This notion is clearly present in works such as Invisible Life (2000), an installation in which the exhibition space is covered with convex lenses, and Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996), a box with a peephole that uses mirrors facing each other to produce a infinite number of reflections. The reason these works are more than simple optical devices is because they embody Kusama's monomaniac fears - fears that compel her to continue weaving surfaces in order to confirm her own existence. As we peek into her installations, the polka-dot patterned pumpkins, multicoloured lighting and other objects enter our perception like a dash, and slowly multiply inside our consciousness, as if Kusama's fears were contaminating it. In other words, we share that sense of uncertainty that lies somewhere between the external and internal, and of which Kusama is always aware.
In her semiautobiographical novel, Sumire Kyohaku (Violet Obsession, 1998), Kusama's protagonist expresses gratitude for the physiological suffering she experiences: 'There are ten billion bubbles inside my body. Which is precisely why I feel at one with the ten billion stars that twinkle in the heavens, and why I talk to the clouds made up of ten billion tiny drops of water, and why I hear the voice of the wind carrying ten billion atoms.'1
Today we know about the atoms that make up the world, about the accumulation of data that is continually repeating itself around us, and about the ability of viruses to contaminate any network. This new reality, until quite recently, was literally unimaginable. 'Infinity', 'eternity' and 'self-obliteration' are words that appear frequently in Kusama's vocabulary, used ironically as a way to confirm life in the form of solid matter. Although the term 'infinity' typically has spatial connotations, when used by Kusama it extends to such things as the behaviour of atoms and the flooding of data mentioned above, while 'eternity' refers to 'the present moment', when activity cannot be stopped. For Kusama, nothing is possible after death. Questioned about it in an interview with Damien Hirst, she offered an intriguing response:
Hirst: Do you use playfulness, fun and childishness (in a
good way) to deal
with death? As it's not easily visible in your work.
Kusama: I don't know yet what death is. I am prepared for it, though.2
Kusama uses the term 'self-obliteration' to refer ironically to her efforts to stave off her own obliteration, and does so by stamping her mark on every moment of life, facing her fears of being engulfed by the world around her. The overflowing surfaces Kusama creates are a metaphor for overpopulation, contamination and illness. At the heart of the concept of self-obliteration is the notion that the reduction of everything to polka dots or atoms, accumulation and collage are methods by which we can reunite our two separated selves (our physical reality and our virtual reality). Although the results may be unstable, the aim of this reduction and accumulation is in fact a new kind of integration. In other words, Kusama adopts the role of a shaman or exorcist in order to help bring some stability to our 'being', which, as a result of contamination and dissolution and the overload of virtual information, feels precarious and fragile. While Kusama talks of being prepared for death, she appears to act like a scenographer that builds a bridge between heaven and hell, particularly in works such as Fireflies on the Water (2000) and Ladder to Heaven (2000).
Kusama often makes reference to her childhood. She once stated, 'no matter what colours I paint in, or what shapes I mould, they never match the beauty of my hallucinations', indicating the unparalleled intensity of the hallucinations at the origin of her images.3 Those who suffer schizophrenia find it difficult to distinguish between shades of colour when painting, and so tend to use strongly contrasting primary colours. This may partially explain why Kusama's paintings are either very colourful or extremely monotone, with little in between. In her recent installation Hi, Konnichiwa (Hello!) (2004), Kusama adopted a strikingly honest approach to the world of wonder and the 'wishes' of girls facing puberty. The installation was an attempt to reclaim and celebrate the happiness she herself was unable to experience during her own adolescence, when she was forced to spend most of her time painting. Since 2002, Kusama has been producing drawings that contain girls as motifs. The line-drawn girls take on simple and humorous shapes, they wear clothes reminiscent of Kusama's objects and are all the same size, as if they were just samples.
Five paper dolls (each with names, such as Yayoi or Nao) and three dogs are placed together next to a large, slowly revolving flower sculpture (Hanako) in a space covered in hay, while 120 drawings of girls are pinned to the surrounding walls. The girls' facial features are made up of three dots representing eyes and mouth. The overall feeling of the installation is celebratory, but at the same time the figures appear uncanny. The scene has the air of something that might be waiting for us in another world. The girls seem to be saying to Kusama in unison, 'Hi, Konnichiwa'. Compared to the tension in Kusama's earlier accumulations featuring photographs of people's faces, at first glance this work seems relaxed, recalling Alice in Wonderland's dream-like world. But for Kusama this is probably a manifestation of her view of the afterworld. One of the paper dolls has grown and taken on a three-dimensional form larger than the artist herself, and is waving in her direction. This is Kusama's alter ego, appearing as she once wanted to be. This too is a paradise contaminated with polka dots.
Illness can be represented as a mutation of the cells and molecules that make up your own body. Kusama transformed the experience and reality of her own illness into a universal form. As Lynn Zelevansky explains: 'The Infinity Net paintings that developed from [hallucinations] seem to have offered Kusama a sense of control, as if by recreating the patterns she had some power over their appearance and activity.'4 Kusama's 'universality' is not something she set out to realise in the form of her work, but something that was developed as a result of the 'control' that went hand-in-hand with her desperate struggle. Her environmental sculptures, in which day-to-day living spaces are covered with colourful stuffed phalli and macaroni, represent another example of Kusama's frantic effort to transform the weakening, abnormal forces into living energy. The balance between these two interpretations is what makes up the essential strength that pervades Kusama's work. The fact that Kusama 'transcends illness' with her work implies that we, as viewers, are contaminated too, and experience a kind of mutation. That experience demands that we be honest in recognising this as an example of evolution, and at the same time, pay due respect to ourselves as the subjects of that evolution.
Translated by Pamela Miki
Yayoi Kusama, Sumire Kyohaku (Violet Obsession), Tokyo: Sakuhin-sha, 1998, pp.94-95↑
Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama, in Laura Huptman (ed.), Yayoi Kusama, London: Phaidon Press, 2000, p.140↑
These words are often repeated by Kusama in her texts and interviews.↑
Lynn Zelevansky, 'Driving Image: Yayoi Kusama in New York', in Love Forever Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998, p.14↑