In the Spring of 2015, Yayoi Kusama’s “A Dream I Dreamed” solo exhibition at the Shanghai MoCA proved to be one of the most popular art shows the city has ever seen. With visitor numbers exceeding 3,000 a day, we look at the span of this prolific artist’s career and discuss why one woman’s dream is able to affect and inspire so many.
by Mark Liu (translated from Chinese)
As Yayoi Kusama’s touring exhibition ends its Shanghai leg, she can rest assured that she is now a household name in this city. Kusama has legions of fans and her exhibitions have the sort of mass pop culture appeal that galleries can only dream of. With queues snaking around the MoCA building, the exhibition was MoCA’s most popular in recent years. But as visitors poured in, we decided to find out what really compelled the crowds to come. I surveyed 100 visitors at random to try to get to the bottom of it. A third of those surveyed said they came to see the exhibition because they had heard of Kusama’s fame; a quarter said they like her artwork; another quarter were simply following their friends and the rest just wanted to walk around. So, if only a quarter of the visitors came out of genuine love of Kusama’s art, what are the rest of them really looking at?
I also noticed that, in the space of 30 minutes, of the almost 300 people that had stood in front of the installation ‘Pumpkin’, only a third of them stayed more than 30 seconds and out of these almost half were just taking pictures for themselves and their friends. Ultimately, only a small percentage of these visitors were talking about the artwork itself. I couldn’t help but think that those who had entered the exhibition with little knowledge and understanding of Kusama’s works left with equally little
Art From Illness
During her early years in New York, Kusama’s exhaustive self-promotion saw her rise to prominence; she has a real knack for getting herself noticed. Even in her 80s, Kusama still makes public appearances in a shocking crimson wig and head-to-toe clothes of her own design. Several years ago, some people uncharitably thought that her well-known mental illness was simply another one of her publicity stunts, but after nearly 40 years living in a psychiatric hospital, I think it’s safe to say those accusations have been put to rest. Art critics have been very keen to analyze Kusama and her work, giving her the labels of feminist, minimalist and surrealist, but Kusama simply regards herself as an “obsessional artist”.
Born on March 22nd, 1929 in Nagano Prefecture to a wealthy but conservative family, Kusama’s mental illness manifested itself early on in her life in the form of the hallucinations that she would then spend the rest of her life capturing. Kusama , talking about her first hallucinatory experiences that informed the themes of repetition and infinity that repeat over and over again in her prolific career, said:
“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,”
With a philandering father and a mother who was strict to the point of abuse, young Kusama sought escape and solace from her volatile family life in drawing. Her unhappy relationship with her parents would colour her work for the rest of her life, as seen in her approach to topics such as sex and love. After trying to get involved in the art scene in her native Japan, but finding the strict master-pupil relationship of Nihonga painting restrictive and being ostracized for her illness, the 28-year-old Kusama left for New York under the advice of her hero Georgia O’Keefe with one million yen (60,000RMB) and the message of “you needn’t come back” from her mother. Before she left Japan, Kusama purposefully destroyed many of her own works.
The New York Years
Despite coming from a wealthy family, Kusama’s first years in New York were marked by poverty and she found it hard to be accepted by the art scene in New York. In 1959, she joined in a young artists group exhibition and attracted the attention of art critic Donald Judd, who even bought of her paintings for $200 (1,200RMB). In this period of change, Kusama’s painting style evolved from the relatively small watercolours that she had been creating back in Japan to large scale sculpture and installations; her works becoming ever more powerful but also oppressive.
In her milestone work ‘Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show’ in 1963, Kusama created her first installation work that utilizes the whole gallery room space at the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York, pasting up 999 pictures of boats on the wall while a simple rowboat covered with phallic protuberances sat in the middle. 1964 saw Kusama start to utilize lights and mirrors in her work, the start of many infinity rooms that would become almost as symbolic of her oeuvre as her polka dots. Despite wide critical acclaim from The New York Times and subsequent shows alongside such pop art luminaries as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, commercial success still eluded her and Kusama sank into another bout of mental illness.
Helped by a financial grant and a growing friendship with studio-mate On Kawara, Kusama embraced the rise of hippie counterculture in the late 1960s, and rose to prominence in the public eye with a series of ‘happenings’ in which naked participants were painted with brightly colored polka dots. Public nudity along with provocative names such as ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead’ and ‘Homosexual Wedding’ gave rise of widespread media coverage and general curiosity, making Kusama a star in the New York art scene. She made public appearances dressed in witches’ hats and robes. She often wore kimonos, playing up her Japanese exoticism and emphasizing her ‘otherness’ as an Asian female crashing headfirst into the white male-dominated world of American pop art. Critics accused her of self-promotion and a’lust for publicity’ but criticism and acclaim alike only served to fuel her flames of obsession. For Kusama, her work is all-encompassing and no contraction exists for her between art and publicity; no discernable boundary exists between herself and her art. After the death of her partner Joseph Cornell, Kusama moved back to Japan in 1973 but with her health declining, she eventually checked in permanently to Seiwa Hospital where she still lives to this day. Despite her official hospitalization, the artist has remained impossibly productive, creating works from her studio next to the hospital at an unrelenting speed.
A Glimpse At Infinity
The Yayoi Kusama exhibition contains many of her major works, but unlike their Western counterparts, the Shanghai leg of the tour did not exhibit many of her much earlier works. Taken out of context, Kusama’s works are harmlessly fun: bright colours, flashing lights, polka dots. Her patterns translate well onto clothes and accessories as seen in her collaboration with Louis Vuitton, but peel away the commercial pop appeal and what do you get? What do the polka dots really mean?
In her own words “our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment”. It seems amazing that works dating back decades can seem so fresh and innovative even in today’s jaded and information- saturated world. It is only possible when the art truly comes from the deepest reaches of the soul and not derived from the outside world of graying influence. Her show allows for both thoughtful contemplation and selfie-friendly photo-ops, and in a way the viewers’ desire to immerse themselves in the art, to have their photo taken when they are part of the installation, is in itself a testament to the success of her intentions.
The artist’s struggle to express in the physical world what her troubled mind sees internally is a lifelong obsession, and even if we, the viewer, can only catch but a glimpse of the infinity that is so personal to Kusama, you will marvel at the illusions of infinite spaces that she has managed to create.
No matter how people label this artist, or what they think of her work, the world needs artists like Kusama who’s unique inner turmoil and worldview serves to allow us the chance to experience something wondrous.