YAYOI KUSAMA - POLKA DOTS ETERNAL
Published: Oyster #88, August/September 2010.
Despite her lifelong battle with crippling mental illness, veteran Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has forged a reputation as one of the avant-garde’s most formidable and, quite literally, dotty protagonists. With a new video work showing as part of the 17th Biennale of Sydney, the 81-year-old is still very much at the top of her game, writes Dan Rule.
For Yayoi Kusama, art is neither a choice nor an affectation. It is not something she does on an occasional whim; it is not a means of study or investigation. The 81-year-old’s practice is ingrained in the stuff of life itself.
“I have lived my life both in mind and body, incorporating all my hopes into art,” she says. “I have found in it my spiritual salvation.”
Kusama, who is speaking via a translator in the lead-up to her exhibition as part of the 17th Biennale of Sydney, is a singular, seemingly indelible figure in a contemporary art world so often characterised by fluidity and flux.
Across a career that has spanned more than half a century – including 15 years in New York between 1958 and 1973 working alongside Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell and Claes Oldenberg as one of pivotal figures in the avant-garde movement – Kusama’s paintings, sculptures, installations, text, performance and video works have become some of the contemporary art’s most recognisable (and more recently, valuable) works. Her famed motif of the polka dot has appeared in so many contexts and breached so many aesthetic and philosophical signatures – be it feminism, pop art, fashion, minimalism or abstract expressionism – its near impossible to trace.
But while her dotty premise may give her work a kind of playful buoyancy, it’s grounded in a much deeper engagement with notions of repetition, accrual and the infinite. Indeed, for the woman who famously once said “if it were not for art, I would have killed myself long ago” and has lived by choice in a Tokyo mental facility since the mid 70s, artistic practice is an entirely holistic pursuit.
“Art is about everything that exists in my mind and body,” she muses. Put simply, it is a means for extension and, ultimately, survival.
“Everyday my heart is filled with a wish to commit suicide. When I was in New York, I was hospitalised for some time after an attempted suicide.”
“What saved me,” she continues, “has been the encouragement I got from my pursuit of the truth in art.”
Kusama’s creative lineage runs deep. Born in 1929 and raised in the alpine town of Matsumoto in the Nagano Prefecture of central Honshu, she took to art at the earliest of ages. She was an insatiable drawer, often rendering scenes that would come to her in “hallucinations”.
“I have seen a number of hallucinations since childhood,” she says. “The drawings I made of them and the ideas they inspired have been the foundations of my artworks.”
It was far from a joyous time for the young Kusama. Her father, who she has often referred to as a “gentle” and “kind-hearted” man, was largely absent from the family home. Her mother, on the other hand, was a shrewd businesswoman and a controlling, often violent matriarch. Kusama’s obsessive behaviour and continuous doodling and painting angered her to no end.
“My mother hated to see me always engaged in painting pictures and harassed me by tearing up the things I had painted and throwing them away,” she says
By the time she was teenager, Kusama fled to Kyoto and enrolled in art school, where she studied Nihonga painting, a traditional Japanese form of watercolour. It was a period of great prolificacy for the artist, obsessively producing gouache, pastel and ink-on-paper works by the thousands before eventually leaving for New York to follow a “longing for art and the world of mystery” in late 1957.
It was definitive time for the Kusama. After acquainting Judd, Cornell and others through Georgia O’Keeffe, she quickly became one of the key figures of city’s artistic coterie. Influential works from her time in the US included 1965 installation Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field), which saw stuffed, polka dotted, phallic fabric shapes fill a 3.6 x 3.6 metre mirrored cube, and 1966’s Narcissus Garden, a field of large stainless steel balls that Kusama showed at the Venice Biennale without invitation the same year. Her series of performative, nudist Happenings in Central Park and by the Brooklyn Bridge during 1968 and her performance work Self-Obliteration by Dots (also in 1968) also garnered much notoriety.
But after a string of paranoid episodes, which culminated in a suicide attempt in the early 70s, Kusama travelled back to Japan and admitted herself to a Tokyo mental facility, where she continues to live and work today. Suffice to say, she considers her obsessive art practice her one true therapy.
“Art has been my guidepost throughout my life,” she offers simply. “Obsession gives me strength to fight my difficulties.”
Her video work for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict, is a remake of the original 1999 piece of the same name. Remade in collaboration with Biennale Artistic Director David Elliott, it sees the artist in garish get-up crooning a cheeky ode to life’s end.
“Tear down the gate of hallucinations,” she sings. “Amidst the agony of flowers, the present never ends”… “I become a stone.”
Kusama, as we might expect, is suitably excited with the work’s recasting. “It is the first time the piece has been shown in the present form,” she says. “I have heard that the work is causing a sensation, touching the hearts of many viewers.”
And it’s precisely this engagement with her audience that helps sustain the veteran artist’s incredibly prolific endeavours.
“Since I’ve got older, producing artworks has kept me fully occupied,” she says. “I have inspiration anytime – in the middle of the night, in the morning and in the afternoon – and anywhere, like in an airplane.”
“It is my earnest wish to create works that would live on even after I have died and contribute to the world culture,” she continues.
“I want viewers of my works to perceive in their own way my drive to create, my ideas and the originality of my art. My aim is to send a message of peace and love forever to as many people as possible.”