A sea of plastic silver globes sat outside the Italian Pavilion. It was the 66th Venice Biennale where Yayoi Kusama was invited, although not as an official exhibitor but important nonetheless, by artist Lucio Fontana. She received permission from the chairman of the Biennale committee to show her piece, Narcissus Garden. A sign that read “Your narcissus on sale” was propped up and Kusama stood there peddling the spheres to a passerby for 2 dollars. Peering into one of the 1,500 fortune teller-like balls, one is staring their ego and vanity in the face. She was stopped but Narcissus Garden remains her genius protests of the commercialization of the art world. Kusama sought to break down the walls that limited traditional institutions and democratise art by presenting it to the common man.
Yayoi Kusama is her own muse. Out of the darkness of her neuroses, she creates colour and light. She was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan and grew up against the backdrop of farming lands. Her interest in art emerged at a young age and she went on to study traditional Japanese painting, eventually making the avant-garde her life goal. The fact that she was an artist, was an act of defiance in the society that she lived in. Her family wanted to marry her off but she had her heart set on art and herself. Her mother’s vehement disapproval of Kusama’s artistic aspirations is attributed to her emotional instability and it was at this time or later in her teens when she started receiving psychiatric treatment.
Feeling constricted in her motherland, she was determined to leave it and die in the United States. But, she eventually found herself back in Japan where she leads a peaceful life, full of days or “indescribable spells” as she calls them, creating in a trance-like process for 50 to 60 hours stretches. At 90, she creates from the mental hospital which she checked herself into in 1977.
Kusama is synonymous with polka dots, which she continuously explores through her enormous body of work. Her disorder had shown her the world covered in nets and within those lines are dots. She had said in 1968 that the earth is but a single polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. This contrast between the grandiose and infinite with the puny and finite is something that can be seen throughout her works. She explores both the larger particles of this world as well as the minuscule atoms. This motive remains consistent throughout the multitude of mediums she works with, such as performance art, experimental film, fashion, fine art, poetry and even her own naked body.
In 2016, she made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Having created throughout different zeitgeists, her voice is distinct and her art remains relevant. She relentlessly speaks her mind through her art: bringing it out for all to see and inviting the viewer to be part of that conversation.
The pumpkin, with its unusual curves, grooves and bumps, are the shape of a man’s head and it speaks to Yayoi Kusama of her childhood and trauma. It appears early on in her work when she was a teen and became more pronounced in 1975. Her ties to the pumpkin can be traced back to World War II where there was a nationwide shortage of food. Her family owned a storehouse of pumpkins which became a beacon of hope, sustaining much of their home village in that grave moment of need.
She first experienced hallucinations in her childhood. The pumpkin would appear to her as a source of comfort and familiarity throughout the uncharted waters of her psychological breaks. The pumpkin to her is solace from her anxieties and obsessive thoughts. She said that she had spent as much time as a month, confronting the ‘spirit of the pumpkin’. And the result of this reconciliation is seen in her vivid sculptures and paintings of the pumpkin. Throughout her work, the squash remains both a mystery and wonder to the viewer.
Thousands of tiny dots filled her plain canvases. It was minimalist in a way but given the extent of her body of work, one cannot classify Kusama as an artist of a certain movement. She first began her Infinity Net paintings in the 1950s. This was another way she coped with her stress-induced hallucinations and simultaneously fed her love of art. “By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease,” she said in a 1999 interview.
In 1955, she wrote to Kenneth Callahan and Georgia O’Keefe. Both artists encouraged her to move to America. The art scene in late 1950s America saw many artists reacting against abstract expressionism. They were intrigued by flat, repetitive composition so there was enormous interest for Kusama’s Infinity Net series.
Yayoi Kusama has produced over 20 Infinity Mirror rooms since 1965. Stepping into one of these rooms, Kusama invites the viewer to not just be immersed in the work but be a part of it and in the process, be transformed. Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) was one of her first immersive environments. Threading through a jungle of her signature polka dot on phalluses and seeing this reflected over and over again in the mirrors, brings together Kusama’s interest of repetition and sexual exploration. Curator Catherine Taft described the experience in the 25-square-meter room as a “psychosexual encounter with one’s own body and image”.
Being sublimated by her art was a personal dream fulfilled. “Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama, (who have lived for years in my famous, specially-built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom,” she wrote. Kusama had created a space that existed beyond her everyday self and the psychological traumas that she had experienced.
By the early 2000s, she had shifted the nature in which the rooms took. Evolving from sculptural and tactile to dimly lit rooms which played with lights. The experience is almost more existential — as it goes beyond the self and outside of Kusama’s mind — and into the realm of consciousness, which is boundless and cosmic.
Till the 26th of August, Yayoi Kusama’s work will be shown at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in “Vision For Painting” alongside 22 other international artists.