Hope, Boundless: The Universe of Yayoi Kusama

December 15, 2017 • Entertainment, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo in 2016. (Photo: Tomoaki Makino, courtesy of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama)

‘Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors’ Is a Traveling Exhibition of the Acclaimed Artist’s Works.

By Alissa Hiraga, Contributor

Humankind discovered that the universe, with its brilliant starry expanses and galaxies, also holds dark matter and elements often invisible and unpredictable. Amid fiery, violent cycles, black holes and impossible conditions, the universe has astonishingly maintained harmony, even if temporary, for life to be possible. Some have likened human beings as its envoys — styled with a complex psyche as mysterious as the universe itself and as delicate as stardust — on an often painful quest, haunted by the fundamental question — the eternal riddle — of what it means to be human. We’ve long danced with the belief that to be human certainly means to suffer.

One of the most prolific artists living today is Yayoi Kusama, 88, whose wondrous works are the result of an imagination that never rests. A study of her works reveals the artist’s dedication to her artistic process, which serves as healing and renewal from suffering.

Her creations are essentially manifestations of her focus on impermanence, life and death, as well as the desire for time to exist beyond the natural cycle bestowed to us. There is childlike charisma in her obsessive collection of dots and patterns, but also wisdom behind the sheer ferocity of details.

Kusama’s ability to render disruptive elements into a singular piece, where these elements become harmonized, is a feature of her genius.

“Kusama has a tremendous capacity to access her body memory. With her lack of premeditation and her practice of letting her hand lead the way, she has trained her body to acquire its own sense of memory, which is cumulative and gradual in character and thus thrives on repetition. Thus, painting becomes a form of healing in this way,” said Mika Yoshitake, associate curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.

Yayoi Kusama, circa 1965, in her artistic creation Phalli’s Field. (Photo: Cathy Carver)

With works spanning more than 60 years, Kusama is a luminary in the art world. As the first woman to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, her story is one of constant breakthroughs. She has become more familiar over time to people across the world. Her iconic presence is felt even in those who may not necessarily connect her name with her works. Her art adorned luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton’s storefronts and products in a 2012 collaboration. Last year, Time magazine named Kusama among 100 of the world’s most influential people. Her likeness and art have also been adoringly replicated in the form of Kokeshi dolls and giant plush pumpkins.

Born in Matsumoto, Nagano, in 1929, Kusama’s early childhood was marked by tormenting hallucinations. She began capturing the experiences in the form of drawings. Kusama would suffer from crushing emotional abuse.

As a young child, her mother prohibited her from practicing art, and her youth was darkened by the brutal Second-Sino Japanese War and World War II. As a teenager, Kusama and her classmates worked in a military factory sewing parachutes.

In “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” she recalled, “My adolescence was spent in the closed darkness; especially because of the war, many dreams I had rarely, if at all, saw the light of day.”

Kusama held her first solo exhibitions in Tokyo during the 1950s. Rebelling against a Japanese society that was suffocating in its social conformity and patriarchy, she journeyed to the U.S. and held her first solo exhibition in Seattle, Wash.

One imagines the steely determination Kusama had to traverse the post-war West as a Japanese female artist. With aspirations to be a part of the avant-garde art scene, Kusama moved to New York. It was in New York where she created the “Net” paintings and her works started to capture attention in other countries.

During this time, Kusama began creating soft sculptures and phalliclike fabric tubes in a series called “Accumulations.” These works served as an expression of Kusama’s fear of sex.

“By continuously reproducing the forms of things that terrify me, I am able to suppress the fear … and lie down among them. That turns the frightening into something funny,” she said in “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.”

Kusama started incorporating mirrors and electric lights in the mid-1960s. In the late ’60s, Kusama’s works reflected her support of gay rights and social/political change.

 

She returned to Japan in the 1970s and began creating poetic collages and ceramic works. Grappling with health issues, Kusama voluntarily admitted herself to a hospital and continued to work.

She would hold five solo exhibitions a few years later and was featured in major exhibitions in Japan, Europe and the U.S. The subject of major retrospectives, Kusama was selected by the commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

As documented in the “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” chronology, this was “the first time a single artist had been chosen.”

Today, Kusama continues to work in her Tokyo studio, unabated in her love for art and life.

In the current special traveling exhibition, visitors are able to enter the artist’s imagination and universe through interactive installations. The exhibition, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and curated by Yoshitake, also marks the North American debut of new works.

The accompanying exhibition catalog, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which Yoshitake also edited, includes thoughtful essays on Kusama and her work by Melissa Chiu, Alexander Dumbadze, Gloria Sutton and Yoshitake. In addition to vibrant photos, the catalogue features a detailed chronology compiled by Miwako Tezuka and an annotated bibliography by Alex Jones.

The Broad in Los Angeles is the only California museum to host the traveling exhibition. Sarah Loyer, assistant curator at the Broad, says visitors are enthusiastic about the exhibition. Kusama’s works bring to mind the intrinsic connections we have to the world and others.

“Kusama’s artwork has great appeal worldwide, appealing to art historians, while also engaging a general audience and even attracting young children,” she said. “It is rare that an artist has such reach. Kusama’s consistent interest in repetition and in the concept of infinity are compelling, relatable themes in our contemporary world. The Infinity Mirror Rooms give visitors the experience of being both the most important thing in the room and simultaneously dispersed and not important at all. This feeling is evoked in many of Kusama’s other works, such as the ‘Accumulation’ sculptures, ‘Infinity Net’ paintings and performances. Visitors can relate to this feeling of being both significant and small at the same time; it is a common feeling in today’s world.”

The exhibition features six of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms and a collection of large-scale installations and paintings, sculptures and works on paper dating from the 1950s to the present. There is also archival material and photographs of Kusama’s public performances.

For Yoshitake, the exhibition is unique in the impact it has to the viewing public because visitors interact with the installations.

“The artist transfers the decentered visual effects of her paintings and sculptures into immersive, phenomenological spaces in which visitors become active participants,” she said.

In “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” an installation that has been at the Broad since the museum opened two years ago, one imagines being surrounded by celestial bodies in the array of dotted lights and mirrors. The installation may also conjure images of stars dying and being reborn or the Milky Way.

Visitors are instantly aware of their existence with respect to the confined space. Like the glass mirrors and light effects, the idea of infinity may be an illusion, bound by time and space. But the imagination can take viewers anywhere.

“A key theme within Kusama’s artwork is the celebration of life and its aftermath, made clear in works of diverse media including painting, sculpture, works on paper and the artist’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. This embracing of lifecycles is clearly tied to the idea of resilience and is exemplified in the organic forms the artist uses from the 1950s to the present, as well as in the concepts of infinity, boundlessness and repetition that are a through line of her practice,” said Loyer.

Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession — Love Transformed Into Dots, 2007, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama

In the “Before Entering the Dots Obsession — Love Transformed” installation, visitors are greeted by a video projection of Kusama reciting her poetry and a giant balloon to peep into. Giant vinyl, polka-dotted balloons fill the installation room, bathed in pinkish-red light. “Phalli’s Field,” which feature the phalliclike fabric tubes that appeared in “Accumulations,” is described in the exhibition as the most important breakthrough during the 1960s.

“Love Forever” has a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic feel. With a hexagonal shape and mirrored on all sides, the installation features two peepholes for visitors to look through and see themselves and another participant in endless reflections. As detailed in the exhibition, Kusama relates the concept of “Love Forever” to stand for civil rights, sexual liberation, antiwar movements and various activist groups of the 1960s. The installation represents the connection and impact people have to one another.

In “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” the visitor is enveloped in a warm glow of lights reminiscent of Japanese lanterns and the ceremony of tōrō nagashi. Kusama’s installation is a study in contrasts — the comforting glow implies the afterlife, while the surrounding darkness signals impermanence and the unknowable.

The paintings and sculptures are tantamount in significance to the installations and represent the challenges Kusama faced throughout her life and artistry. Among these important works are Kusama’s oil on canvas “Infinity Net” paintings, which are described in the exhibition as works she created “without composition — without beginning or center.” Kusama created the paintings during her first years in New York, a time she was under extreme hardship.

Sculptures such as the slightly unnerving “Life (Repetitive Vision)” sprout, curl and peer like tentacles or trunks that could be from the land, sea or on a distant planet. An installation of numerous sculptures including “My Adolescence in Bloom,” “Welcoming the Joyful Season,” “Unfolding Buds” and “Story After Death” sets off an uplifting vibe without being escapist, where Kusama’s focus on the expansion of self, not the oppression of the self, is made clear. There is also a playful edginess in the sculptures, a trait that characterizes many of her works.

The exhibition ends at Kusama’s “Obliteration Room.” According to Loyer, “self-obliteration” is a term Kusama used beginning in the 1960s to describe losing the boundaries between the self and the surrounding environment. “‘Self-obliteration’ is an action toward radically connecting with others, and this is part of what is so compelling about the artwork. It calls on people to simultaneously lose themselves and find themselves, and in doing so find connections.”

Visitors are given colorful dot stickers to place anywhere in the “Obliteration Room.” Among the scatter of seemingly random dots, there are also heavily saturated areas where dots come together like magnetized candy. People who were seconds ago strangers sat together at the dotted table locked in a collective mission to imprint every space. The installation is an example of why people from across the world are drawn to Kusama’s art.

“Her work is driven by a utopian desire for radical connectivity,” Yoshitake said.

Kusama, in an interview with Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu that is featured in “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” said, “Early in my life, I remember the sacrifices during the war. This was the hardest time of my life. I don’t want to ever see this happen again. People being killed and the sacrifices people made. After I die, I hope that people see that my paintings are about love and peace and spirituality. This is why I am painting. I keep on painting. Whenever I finish a painting, it is like the perfect thought and reflects my thinking. I don’t ever want to stop painting.”

Suffering may be an ever-present aspect of what it means to be human; we may not be able to release all our suffering, but Kusama’s works affirm how an artist’s process to create courageously from even the darkest depths and the most impossible conditions will bring to the light something meaningful for others.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, organized by Mika Yoshitake, curator, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario (March 3-May 27, 2018), Cleveland Museum of Art (July 9-Sept. 30, 2018) and the High Museum, Atlanta (Nov. 18, 2018-Feb. 17, 2019). The accompanying exhibition catalogue is “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” edited by Mika Yoshitake, Prestel Publishing.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room — Love Forever, 1966/1994, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Wood, mirrors, metal, and lightbulbs. (Photo: Cathy Carver)

 

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