Wednesday, 1 February 2017

An infinite artwork

Some of you might remember my post on Ai Wei Wei’s retrospective exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) about a year ago (here). Recently, the oeuvre of another world-renowned artist from the East, that of the 87-year-old Yayoi Kusama of Japan, was being shown there. The fame of these two personas is probably something of the same proportions but their art is in many respects very different originating from a totally different source. Ai draws from social activism, Kusama from her supernatural experiences and visual hallucinations.

Leaf of a Japanese Medlar, pencil drawing, 1948.

Self -portraits from the 1950s.

Untitled, gouache, ink on paper, 1954.

Encounter, acrylic and gouache on paper, 1954.
Yayoi Kusama was born in a small town in Japan in 1929. Despite having a traditional upbringing she started creating her peculiar art very early. In her 20s she went to study painting in Kyoto but the naturalistic Japanese style didn’t satisfy her who already as a child saw flowers with heads smiling at her, pebbles rushing towards her from the river, everything being gradually disappearing into patterns…

Infinity Nets Yellow.

Accumulation Sculptures.

In the late 1950s, Kusama moved to New York and soon settled herself in the avant-garde scene there hanging out with artists such as Warhol, Oldenburg, Judd, etc. Her NY breakthrough became with paintings she called Infinity Nets, large pale canvases infinitely repeating a single small pattern. She was also engaged in other kinds of visual arts and fashion becoming known especially for her Accumulation Sculptures that were objects covered in stuffed phallus shapes made of fabric. They were not created to manifest her fascination but fear of the organ. Multiplying was her way to control the horror.

Stairway to the exhibition.

Infinity Mirrored Room Hymn of Life.
In New York, Kusama also introduced the polka dot that later became one of her signature features. She was often photographed in front of her dotted installations wearing an outfit with the same pattern. This habit turned into an artistic practice she called self-obliteration, an artwork she makes herself part of but trying to assimilate into it as fully as possible. The Infinity Mirrored Rooms, small closed spaced completely covered with mirrors infinitely repeating the colours, patterns or objects inside, made the visitor disappear into the illusion.

Box full of circular mirrors, with me shooting through the peeping hole.
Kusama also arranged ‘happenings’, for example, painted polka dots on the naked bodies of people she randomly selected from the audience. These anti-war performances were popular but the art establishment mocked them to be phoney. As they were also considered obscene Kusama’s star started to fade eventually leading to her return to Japan in 1973 after 16 years in New York.

I Who Committed Suicide, 1977.
In Tokyo, the mocking continued and the press saw Kusama as a failure. Her mental health was shaking. She had done some writing before and turned to that at first gradually assuming painting again. But she felt anxiety, had social phobias and was afraid she might try to commit suicide. In 1977, she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo where she has lived ever since. The ‘Kusama building’ with her studio is located very close by.

Infinity Nets Red.
Accumulation and repetition have been Kusama’s way of controlling her hallucinations and fears also later. Several of her restfully captivating and colourful Infinity Nets paintings were seen at the Helsinki show, as well as a couple of her fascinating Infinity Mirrored Rooms.

Another signature features in Kusama’s art is the pumpkin. She is obsessed by its round shape symbolising to her the world and everything living. She believes the pumpkin has peace-building powers and regards it as her mental home. The pumpkin has followed her at least from the 1980s both in paintings and sculptures.

Black Flower, 1986 and Moon Night, 1985.

Shop window display for Louis Vuitton with a life-size wax model of Yayoi Kusama, 2012.
In 1989 at 60, Kusama’s fanciful art finally made its big international breakthrough following an exhibition she held in New York. A few years later, she represented Japan in the Venice Biennale. Ever since the late 1990s, her retrospectives have been on show around the world. Fashion and design brands have been competing to collaborate with her, the most notable campaign being that with Louis Vuitton in 2012.  She is now treated as a ‘national treasure’ in Japan where she was recently awarded the Order of Culture as the first female artist for drawings and sculpture ever.

Kusama still paints practically every day. In 2009 at 80, she started a series called My Eternal Soul (photos above and below). The original plan was to paint 100 canvases most of them measuring about 2m x 2m. Those were completed in 18 months. She is now obsessively continuing to reach 1000. Her assistants prepare the canvases for her and she paints them on a horizontal surface starting from the edges and working towards the middle. Canvas after canvas will be filled with her extraordinary psychedelic bright-coloured patterns with ease as if the process didn’t require any thinking, as if in automation.

Even after reading several articles on Kusama and seeing a recent documentary on her I am confused: how much of her doings has been genuine artistry, how much only a carefully designed brand? I feel the present state of affairs is more like exploiting a sick old woman who considers herself a genius and whose paintings and sculptures are sold at hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars/euros/pounds a piece at art galleries and auction houses. As she doesn’t have any family you wonder what happens to the enormous sums of money she has been making for years now. The proposed Kusama museum has presumably not been built. Judged from the scale model seen in the documentary it would have been far too small anyway to house any comprehensive collection of her overwhelming oeuvre.

To quote the artist, “In this universe, the moon, the sun, each and every star, my own life, your life, they are all a single polka dot among billions.” I can’t help wondering whether the message of peace and love was invented later to find a somewhat rational reason for her persistent obsession. Does it even matter? We could all benefit from a little reminder of our own mortality every once in a while. Ironically, the filthy rich who are crowding to own a Kusama are the ones with the least perception of everyone’s unavoidable assimilation to infinity the artist seems to be describing over and over again in her works: as everything is insignificant in the end, why not spend our time on this planet in peace and harmony.

The United Skates of Arnica One Rollar Bills.
Had she added an invitation of doing good and fighting off greed she could gladly call herself not only a ‘genius’ but also a ‘messiah’. In fact, she did express something of that sort while living in New York but her later decades seem to have concentrated solely on fighting her inner demons and making money. Whatever her motives, Yayoi Kusama is an artwork of a woman, a fabulous social study into our time and the way stars are made today.

I am linking this post to Paint Monthly of the Coastal Ripples blog.

HAM was the last stop for Kusama’s Nordic exhibition. Another show will be touring the USA starting from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC in late February. Paintings from the My Eternal Soul series will be exhibited at The National Art Center in Tokyo from late February to late May.

Should you have missed my two earlier stories on unconventional female artists have a look at my posts on Hilma af Klint (here) and Niki de Saint Phalle (here).


  1. Wow what an intriguing artist and what an amazing output. I particularly enjoyed your first photo of her work although I am not a fan of the wiggly worms. It seems a shame that she is being exploited at her age. Many thanks for sharing her work and joining Paint Monthly. B x

    1. According to her own words, obsessive painting still continues to save her from suicidal thoughts. She probably wouldn't 'survive' without that but I wonder whether she is capable of keeping control of her finances and financial legacy. Nevertheless, seeing her - a multimillionaire by now - in the little untidy hospital room that has served as her 'home' for decades was an 'infinitely' sad scene in the documentary.

  2. Many great artists have lived the fine line between sanity and insanity. Van Gogh comes to mind. Her art does seem to have the perspective of living under a microscope. Perhaps that is her message.......?

    1. Kusama certainly has a world of her own unseen to the regular people.

  3. That looks ana amazing exhibition! Sarah x