Yayoi Kusama: Conquering the Modern Art Industry Dot by Dot
Polka dots long before weren’t considered as an art. It made people in the Medieval Period think of diseases such as smallpox or leprosy so it wasn’t a good look. The concept of polka dots is not repulsive as before when people started hiding their blemishes by sticking dots or shapes of fabric on their faces. Now, who would have thought that a single polka dot can change the course of art history? Yayoi Kusama’s trademark polka-dotted sculptures and mirror installations proved a huge draw, making her the most popular artist in the world.
For all the hype that surrounds a 90-year-old woman who wears a red wig and makes quirky artworks, Yayoi Kusama is indeed as influential as Picasso and Matisse. Her highly recognizable work characterized by its repetitive patterns and bright colors has been both within and without the artistic community. More recently, her knack of creating large scale artworks, like the “Infinity Room” has captured the attention of the younger generation. While some artists slow down their production as they get older, it feels like Kusama is only getting started.
IT WAS NOT THAT TO BE EASY
In the rural provincial town of Matsumoto Japan, Kusama was born in 1929, and at a very young age, she was determined to be a painter. Unfortunately, her family wasn’t that supportive. Her mother snatched drawings from her before she was able to finish them, which may explain her obsessive creative drive as she rushes to finish a work before it can be taken from her. She couldn’t afford to have decent art materials so she drew using mud on old sacks.
While many artists will say that they cannot help but create, Kusama’s art is literally is an extension of her own mind, conveying in concrete terms the way she sees the world. More than this, her work is an active coping mechanism to deal with the at best disruptive and at worst highly disturbing symptoms of her illnesses: at her most unwell, she is also at her most prolific.
THE WOMAN, 1953
The first works that Kusama exhibited were the use of watercolors. The Woman was her earliest artworks. These first works on paper showed the artist breaking free from the traditional Japanese artistic practices she was taught as a child and embracing Western artistic influences, especially in regard to abstraction. The watercolor depicts a singular biomorphic form with subtle dots in the center floating in a seemingly black abyss. The form is reminiscent of female genitalia with red spikes surrounding it. The overall effect of the work is aggressive and bizarre, showing signs of Kusama’s struggles with mental illness and anxiety towards sex.
At a young age, Kusama started to have hallucinations which a single pattern would engulf everything in her vision. As Kusama explains, “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.” These themes of self-obliteration and representation of the infinite would become an obsession for Kusama as she attempted to represent what she believed to be her alternate reality. Her use of dots became the manifestation of this effort and has become the defining motif in her work.
NO. F (1959)
No. F is one of Kusama’s most celebrated artwork. It marks the beginning of her Inifinty Net Series which is a radical shift from her singular abstract, biomorphic forms she painted during her youth to the more obsessive and repetitive patterns that defined her career. The series started during the 1950s where it coincided with Kusama’s move from her hometown to New York where she found the artistic freedom she needed to expand her art practice
From a distance, No. F seems monochromatic and subtle. As Kusama explains, “without beginning, end, or center. The entire canvas would be occupied by [a] monochromatic net. This endless repetition caused a kind of dizzy, empty, hypnotic feeling.” This hypnotic feeling is furthermore translated to the viewer, as they are invited into the artist’s mind. Although the obsessive pattern is chaotic to create, it proved therapeutic to the artist.
ACCUMULATION NO. 1 (1962)
Accumulation No. 1 is the first in Kusama’s iconic Accumulation series. It is composed of old furniture transformed into sexualized objects namely soft phallica sculptures. More than just making a statement against patriarchal authority, these “compulsion furniture” pieces, as she called them, were deeply personal for Kusama as they were her way of coping with her own innate sexual anxieties. “The armchair thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual vision.
Japanese crafts are embedded on the idea of attention to details, beauty of imperfections and the passage of time
Sex Obsession Food Obsession Macaroni Infinity Nets & Kusama (1962)
This piece is a brave presentation of Kusama of herself. The artist splayed naked on one of her famous soft sculpture furniture pieces laden with phallic accumulations and surrounded with macaroni pasta which forms her familiar, patterns of repetition. By inserting herself into the piece, literally on top of an object that represents a manifestation of her sexual aversion, Kusama attempts to subvert her own discomfort and – in effect – to conquer it. It becomes a visual juxtaposition of her direct confrontation of a lifelong sexual aversion with the recognition of her nude self as an unmistakable, even if unwilling, object of sexual desire.
ANATOMIC EXPLOSION ON WALL STREET (1968)
Kusama started to made fewer art objects when she started to return to Japan. She started experimenting with performance art movement or “happenings”. Her first Anatomic Explosion took place on October 15th, 1968 opposite the New York Stock Exchange. The work featured nude performers dancing to the rhythm of bongo drums while Kusama, who called herself ‘Priestess’, painted blue dots on their naked bodies and presided over the event. The performance was in opposition to the Vietnam War and was prefaced by a press release that stated, “The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue. We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.” After 15 minutes the police came, putting an end to the spectacle
Growing up with the trauma of World War II, Kusama vehemently opposes war and social injustice. Her absurd theatrical artworks which were politically themed is her way to express her opposition. For Kusama, nudity represented peace and love and was used to counter the horrors and tragedies of war.
Kusama’s Pumpkin artwork was the powerful culmination of her creative achievements. Created while living in Japan, it highlights how strange the natural world appears in modern culture. The Pumpkin also reflects the shifting artistic practice of Kusama from aggressive and politically charged works to the more kitsch works that consume her art later in life. This shift can be attributed to the transition in Japanese culture from rigid and militaristic to a full-on embrace of the ridiculous and tacky, as seen in the Hello Kitty cuteness of Kawaii culture.
Her obsession with the Pumpkin rooted in her childhood. Amid widespread national food shortages during World War II, a storehouse of pumpkins that her family owned provided a crucial lifeline and sustained much of their home village of Matsumoto. The pumpkin took on even more personal and psychological significance for the artist as she began to suffer from vivid hallucinations during childhood. Seeing pumpkins in their multiplicity provided a rare source of comfort, in contrast to the more menacing associations she held regarding flowers and other plants.
Pumpkin represents Kusama’s mature style and the technical complexity that is a testament to her dedication to the motif. Through deft and accomplished handling of paint, Kusama combines minutely precise detailing with rhythmic dotting of the pumpkins’ skins to create an enthralling visual experience.
OBLITERATION ROOM (2009)
The Obliteration room starts as a blank canvass. The visitors were given a sheet of round stickers to stick them to any surface in the room. Eventually, the clean white room is obliterated by an explosion of colorful dots.
As Munroe explains, “Kusama’s art is fundamentally about obsession and the need, born of anxiety, to repeat certain acts in an attempt to free herself from that obsession. Since childhood, her art-making has been a private, atavistic ritual, a necessary inducement to repetition that leads to catharsis.” In response to the trauma Kusama experienced as a child, the first iteration of the room was created specifically for children and to be an idealization of childhood. In the space, children are encouraged to violate the “look, but don’t touch” policy of art museums, which for Kusama represents parental restrictions. The act of placing the dot stickers on a work of art allows the children to indirectly disobey their parents. The interactive installation was the first time Kusama moved away from creating a passive environment to creating an environment in which its realization required participation from visitors.
Infinity Mirrored Room- The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
Kusama started creating the Infinity Mirror Room series in the 1960s. It is the culmination of her repetitive paintings, soft sculptures, and installations into an immersive environment. Infinity Mirrored Room- The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away is her most recent iteration. Each Infinity Mirror Room consists of a dark chamber-like space completely lined in mirrors. In the past, Kusama has filled these rooms with pumpkins, phalluses, and lanterns.
This particular room consists of small LED lights hung from the ceiling and flickering in a rhythmic pattern creating pulsing electronic polka dots. The lights reflect off the mirrors in the intimate room creating the illusion of endless space. Only one visitor at a time can experience the installation with that singular visitor becoming integral to the work, as his or her body activates the environment once in the room.
She explains that her work “does battle at the boundary between life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die.” By encouraging visitors to contemplate their existence Kusama’s ethereal work emphasizes the interconnectedness we have to each other and the universe. “By using light, their reflection, and so on, I wanted to show the cosmic image beyond the world where we live.” Now in her ninth decade and accepting of her own mortality, the work represents more harmonious aspirations by the artist for inner and outer peace, and is seen as a progression from her early work, which sought to fight and disrupt rather than reconcile. (Mirrors, Plexiglas LED lights – Collection of the artist, The Broad Foundation, Los Angeles)
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