Dotty for Kusama

Despite being perhaps Japan’s best-known living contemporary artist, I had heard little of Yayoi Kusama before visiting her current retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern.

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Working since the 1940s to create a vast body of work encompassing a variety of disciplines, she is best known for her immersive, large-scale installations and also quite possibly the fact that since 1977 she has been voluntarily residing in a psychiatric hospital.

The exhibition provides a representative collection of her works, starting with her early paintings created in the Japanese Nihonga style. Her paintings from this period reflect the bleak state of Japan after the war, the dark, sinewy, twisting lines of “Corpses” (as shown below) and “Accumulation of Corpses” disturbing and morbid.


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During the 50’s she continued to develop her technique and establish some of the main motifs present in much of her work including ever-watching eyes, miniscule dots detailing abstract forms and networks of almost celia like shapes, both surreal and sinister, reflecting her ongoing mental struggles. Other pieces Kusama produced around this period  include beautiful ink and pastel pieces and striking woodcuts.

It was around this time that Kusama began to receive considerable critical acclaim, but had already decided to leave Japan, saying in her autobiography :


For art like  mine – art that does battle at the border of life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die – [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful to women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.

As a result Kusama moved to New York in 1957. The next part of the exhibition documents the work she initially created there – the Infinity Net Paintings– large scale canvases of muted tones conveying hundreds of obsessive brushstrokes.

After this series Kusama went on to explore in the realms of sculpture, embarking upon her Accumulation Sculptures which consisted of everyday items such as shoes and armchairs being covered in an abundance of repeated forms; initially fabric phalli. She refers to this as her Sex Obsession series. These works were initially exhibited in one of the first group shows documenting the flourishing Pop Art movement in New York, alongside the work of Warhol, Oldenburg, Segal and Rosenquist.


Copyright: Yayoi Kusama


Her work Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show takes this one step further, featuring a white painted rowing boat completely covered with fabric phalli. The boat has been photographed from an aerial view and this image then plastered repeatedly over the surrounding walls which house the piece – utterly bizarre.


Copyright: Yayoi Kusama


Kusama continued to explore a range of mediums including collage and videos documenting the 1960’s and her ‘Self Obliteration’. This included the video documentation of ‘happenings’ in which she would encourage naked participants to paint polka dots on each other’s bodies. Polka dots were the trademark of a ‘Kusama Happening’ and she said of the practice:


“Red, green and yellow polka dots can be the circles representing the earth, the sun, or the moon. Their shapes and what they signify do not really matter. I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe.”


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These ‘happenings’ took place in New York, Rome and Holland, and as they went on Kusama was influenced by issues such as the anti-Vietnam war movement and the American Presidential election, and social elements began to creep into her art. She also began creating dresses and textiles before opening her own boutique in 1969.

Despite her success in the art world, winning numerous awards for the outlandish videos of her ‘happenings’ the mental strain Kusama had been battling became too much.


“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. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.”


In 1973 she returned to Japan before voluntarily admitting herself to the hospital where she has resided ever since. This did not hinder her creation of new works, and the rest of the exhibition documents this effectively starting with the large sculptures and installations she created.


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Kusama also went on to develop new series of paintings, and in the late 90s also returned to creating room sized installations with the incredible ‘I’m here, but Nothing’. A darkened domestic interior, the scene is bathed in UV light, illuminating the hundreds of fluorescent polka dots which cover every surface, representing the disturbing hallucinatory visions Kusama experienced which she also alludes to in her ‘Self Obliteration’ pieces. Completely mesmerizing, the room has an entertaining yet eerie atmosphere, and although it is interesting to explore the option to exit the illusion is welcomed.


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The final room houses ‘Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life’, a large-scale environment where viewers walk through a path surrounded by reflections created using mirrored walls, water and lights. The largest installation she has created to date, the piece is eccentric, compelling and all-encompassing, a true reflection of this remarkable artist’s legacy.


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