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Photo Credit: The Guardian

Beyond the Polka Dots: Who is Yayoi Kusama?

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Anna Lee

An iconic artist, Yayoi Kusama's story is as entrancing as her lots of dots.

You know Kusama’s lots of dots - her infinity rooms are one of her many spotted spaces. They’re iconic installations that immerse the viewer, surrounding them by circles that enchant and encourage the viewer to feel outside of herself. The polka dot style is playful and Kusama’s colours are entrancing, yet there’s more beneath - A polka dot portrait of a fascinating artist’s psychological makeup.

Photo Credit: MoMa

It’s the swinging 1960s in New York, Daddy-o and Yayoi Kusama have arrived. But Kusama barely speaks any English and she’s relatively unconnected to the art world she longs to break into. But inconvenience and adversity has never stopped her. As a school-aged child in Japan during World War II, she was made to work in a parachute factory for long shifts doing intensive work. She still found time to draw at the end of the day. She couldn’t afford resources or supplies, so she improvised with what she found. She was a force of nature, who powered through every one of the many walls in her way. A little language barrier wouldn’t be a problem.

Photo Credit: MoMa

And it wasn’t. Kusama bared her soul, and with her “Naked Happenings” series, bared others. The events were interactive experiences. Participants and audience members were nude and covered in paint or other materials - the intention being to blur the boundaries between art and reality. Kusama’s lifetime fascination and disgust with sex reoccurs a lot in her work, in ways often provocative and controversial. But again, her life was (and is) a series of challenging conventions: from her days of defying her family to become an artist or her demonstrations against the Vietnam war. And her fashion company produced designs that strategically showed parts considered private. 

Photo Credit: Tate

Many of her works were sculpted installations. It was a smooth progression of the “soft sculpture” art form associated with Claus Oldenburg, where the artist replicated everyday objects through soft, malleable fabric rather than the chiselled blocks of old. Kusama’s movement featured “soft cushion” sculptures. The work was again often phallic, still ambiguous, managing to become both soft yet unsettling - confounding her audience with contradiction, translating the feeling of confusion she feels.  This is the immersive power of Kusama: her work attempts to replicate her inner experience by making it external. She’s spoken many times of hallucinations she had as a child, these overwhelming sights of ecstatic lights and other colours breaking free of their confines, to cover her perception of the world. Famously, the red flower fabric of her family tablecloth surrounded her - covering the windows and the walls and soon her body’s form. “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”. This “self-obliteration” is a response to pain by losing your sense of self - the borders of your body fade away as the endless repeating patterns of her circles encompass you.

Photo Credit: MoMa

The softness kept her on the cutting edge of the contemporary art world, but she was not respected as such. Other (male) artists such as the aforementioned Oldenburg and Andy Warhol produced soft sculpture shows, Kusama claiming they “copied” her, to greater acclaim. Oldenburg’s show was lauded. Kusama’s was ignored. This was devastating to her already damaged esteem - to the extent where she threw herself from her window in an attempt to end her own life - landing on a bicycle and surviving. She returned to her native Japan in 1973 to recover, but was not received warmly - her convention breaking work did not appeal to the conservative world she once sought to escape. 

Photo Credit: Tate

These days, the 93-year-old Kusama lives voluntarily in an institution. Her struggles with mental illness have defined her life, but she has made a lifetime of defying what is expected of her to become one of the most iconic artists across her nine decades of work. “I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art”. It’s fortunate for her that she found a way to get through the days and it’s miraculous for us, that it remains so captivating.

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