Yayoi Kusama: who is this artist? The answer to that is she’s the doyenne of the 60s pop art movement who stood shoulder to shoulder with Warhol. A modern millionaire entrepreneurial Japanese painter, fashion designer and novelist whose work travels the globe. Her exhibition at the Tate Modern is eye-popping and bizarre. She’s a crazy woman-child, with a multitude of technicolour, hallucinatory, polka dot dreams incessantly spilling out of her mind. Maybe she wants to drive you out of yours…
The exhibition, in London until 5th June, is a retrospective spanning nine decades of this 83-year-old conceptual artist’s journey to success: from being a penniless debutante in New York to becoming an abstract expressionist of the highest calibre. Kusama’s life-long obsession and catalyst on this journey is simple: the dot. In this exhibition, Kusama appears to believe everything is made from dots. She works with paintings, sculptures, room installations, open air pieces and environmental art. Her dot pieces grapple with the meaning of life and death itself; hence the names of her main sets of work- accumulation, obliteration and infinity.
Rooms One and Two take us through Kusama’s early years. Born in 1929, she grew up in a mountainous provincial town in Japan. The daughter of wealthy farmers who harvested wholesale seeds, she began drawing at an early age, sketching budding flowers for hours on end despite her parents’ disapproval. In 1939, she drew a portrait of her mother covered in seed-shaped dots. Most of Kusama’s early works have specks painted on the canvas, and she created other shapes from nature like contorted eggs, stems and branches. One striking piece is the large painting ‘Zammu’ or ‘Lingering Dream’ (1951).
It’s withered muscle-red plants with teeth-like flowers look as equally destructive and parasitic as they are alive and growing. The young artist’s visions were already proving viscerally powerful and psychologically intense under her imaginary magnifying glass. Her brutal perception of the world didn’t match the expectations of a traditional young Japanese lady. Hence, she was determined to leave for the USA, saying, “My art needed an unlimited freedom, and a wider world.”
Kusama landed on the West Coast, USA in 1957, and then moved to New York in 1958 – determined to find fame and fortune. Room Three displays the work produced in those early years of her new life in NYC; where her passion for abstract expression really began. She created immense white canvases known as her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings. They’re minimal and meditative, and made using repeated semi-circles of white paint on a black surface, which is then whitewashed over. It is a neurotically vast blank space, as if representing the extent of her loneliness.
The sculptures Kusama made in the 1960s are perverse. As you step into Room Four, sofas, a TV, and even shoes are sprouting growths or phallus shapes. There are also dresses and handbags covered in raw macaroni pasta. Kusama calls these her Sex Obsession and Food Obsession series. She’s projected an inner fantasy onto everyday objects that alludes to surrealist art. These ‘Accumulation Sculptures’ (1962-68) caught the imagination of the avant-garde art scene, and were first exhibited in a show alongside Andy Warhol, George Segal and James Rosenquist.
In room six ‘Walking Piece’ (1966) is a series of colour photo slides on a projector. It documents Kusama’s feelings as an Asian female artist in the male-dominated New York art scene. The pictures have been clicked using fish eye lenses with the harsh city landscape as a foreboding backdrop. Kusama’s figure contrasts against the scenery, she’s wearing a bright floral patterned Kimono, and holding an umbrella decorated with flowers, thus making her look alienated from the city. Yet, soon it was to be the flower power generation of the late 1960s who would embrace Kusama and propel her to celebrity status.
Room Seven and Eight display posters and press releases from 1967 onwards; it’s the time that Kusama calls her ‘Self-Obliteration’ era. Yayoi gained psychedelic cult status amongst the experimental hippie crowd who were intent on rebelling against social norms. She threw herself into the movement by hosting art performances she called ‘Body Painting Festivals’ where naked participants were encouraged to paint each other in polka dots.
These ‘happenings’ were staged around New York including in Warhol’s Factory, on Wall Street and as a protest against the Vietnam War. Kusama used video footage by friend Jud Yalkut to create a film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967), and it was scored by rock band C.I.A. It all sounds like fragments from the oddball Project MKULTRA government conspiracy. However, rather than being a stooge to the authorities, Kusama was a consummate rebel. She invented the ‘Church of Self-Obliteration’ and staged gay rights protests.
In 1968, Kusama self-declared a marriage ceremony conducted by her, and officially announced it as, “the first ever homosexual wedding to be performed in the USA”. She even designed a polka-dot dress for the occasion, meant to be worn by two people at the same time. She proclaimed: “Both the bride and groom should wear an orgy wedding gown because clothes ought to bring people together, not separate them.”
The avant-garde artist also experimented with collages and media montages. Here, Yayoi’s repetitive pieces of public faces, airmail stamps and US dollars express a pop art response to the mass manufacturing and consumer culture that was booming in the USA. Kusama was now equally as famous as Andy Warhol. But the success turned sour; her partner, artist Joseph Cornell died. Still suffering from bouts of mental illness that haunted her life, Yayoi returned to Japan in 1974. By 1977 Kusama’s psychological health had deteriorated even further and she voluntarily admitted herself into a mental institution. She continues to live there 35 years later. Kusama has, arguably, produced her best work from the psychiatric hospital’s studio. Whatever the artist has been wrestling with all these years in self-incarceration, she’s produced magnificent art.
The exhibition’s last piece, ‘Infinity Mirror Room-Filled with the Brilliance of Light’ (2011) has thousands of ball-shaped LED electric lights hanging from the ceiling above a narrow pathway. Immerse yourself in the mirror-reflected space and it will envelop your being. The multitude of lights changes to different colours, like atoms lit-up. It’s evocative of the universe, and, almost feels like walking through an infinity of stars.
In the early works it’s clear Kusama’s hallucinations overwhelmed and terrified her. But by honing and mastering her obsessive disorder through her artwork, she discovered beauty and awe from her illness. Like the art or not, it’s still a spectacle to behold. Kusama uses regurgitated motifs of the simple polka dot, true. But her fixation is a relentless energy, engulfing her entire soul. As with stories of people who are irrationally in the grip of someone or something; it’s fascinating entertainment. I yearned to experience more of her room installations and large-scale sculptures in this exhibition: they are sublime.
Photo credit: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography
Words: Jameela Oberman