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Yayoi Kusama: The Art of Obsession

“With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever” by Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Suzanne Kamata

OSAKA, JAPAN. THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ART. “By continuously reproducing the forms of things that terrify me, I am able to suppress the fear,” Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama writes in her autobiography, Infinity Net.

Kusama first gained attention in the late 1950s with her images of nets, which, during episodes of severe neurosis, she applied to canvas, the table in her New York City studio, the floor, and even her body. Her 1960s phallic sculptures reflected her fear of sex, while her macaroni-covered works expressed her feelings about machine-made food: “Just to think of consuming, over time, thousands of servings of macaroni, is horrifying to me and sets off an overwhelming obsession. That is why I made macaroni sculptures with my own hands—in an attempt to overcome the fear.”

She also painted dots: “My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots—an accumulation of particles forming the negative space in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinite infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions, I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions.”

At 83, it seems that “the mystery” is still elusive. Although her recent work is devoid of phalluses, Kusama continues to paint polka dots, as well as eyes, shoes, pumpkins, stars, and flowers. Evidence of her recent and ongoing obsessions appear in her new show Eternity of Eternal Eternity, now traveling around Japan. (A retrospective of her work is being held currently at the Tate Modern Museum in London until June 5.)

I visited her show at the Osaka National Museum of Art with my 12-year-old daughter, who was appropriately decked out in mismatched prints—a black shirt with white polka dots layered over a white T-shirt with sparkles and a big pink heart, striped turtleneck, black and white striped tights, and blue and yellow striped socks.

One might think that Kusama’s oeuvre would be inappropriate for children. After all, at one time she was best known for her phallic sculptures, gay porn films, and for encouraging nudity in public settings as a form of protest against war. However, most of her paintings and sculptures are, in fact, child-friendly. The artist herself, who wears a bright red wig and polka dot dresses, retains an innocence in spite of her illness—or perhaps because of it. Much of her work is playful and whimsical. Also, children are more inclined than most adults to be attuned to an irrational fear of macaroni. In any case, my daughter was far from being the youngest visitor to the exhibit. Mothers and children in strollers filled the lobby, and shared the elevator with us as we descended into the underground museum.

The first gallery featured a series rendered in black magic marker on white canvas entitled “Love Forever.” I heard a little boy say, “Kowai!” (“That’s scary!”) I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the proliferation of centipede-like figures in “Morning Waves” or perhaps the repetition of eyes in “The Crowd,” but he got it; he felt Kusama’s phobia, the intention that led to the work.

The next room was white with giant tulips dotted with large red circles—an experiential work entitled “With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever.” My daughter was delighted with the surreal space, the colors, the giant tulips, while I felt as if I was in a Tim Burton film. We took several pictures, then moved on to “My Eternal Soul,” in which many of the figures that appeared in the black and white series re-appeared in vivid pinks, oranges, yellows and blues. For a Westerner like me, these colors and images seemed joyful and exuberant, but in Japan, where mothers hesitate to dress their children in bright clothes, and married women tend to don somber grays and navies, such hues are unsettling.

The titles, too, give one reason to pause. Although “Fluttering Flags,” a canvas covered with red flag-like images is fairly straightforward, the amusement I derived from a pink canvas covered with lushly-lashed eyes, a spoon, a purse, a shoe, and women’s profiles contrasted with the somber title, “Death is Inevitable.” Clearly, Kusama has a unique take on the world.

Among my favorite paintings were the self-portraits toward the end of the exhibit. As a foreigner in Japan, I could relate to “In a Foreign Country of Blue-Eyed People” which recalls Kusama’s years in New York in the 1960s, as a rare Japanese artist among Americans. Red dots cover the face, suggesting disease—dis-ease?

My daughter was partial to “Gleaming Lights of the Souls,” another experiential piece in which we were invited to enter a small room with mirror-covered walls. Within the walls, dots of light changed colors, giving us the feeling of being among stars or planets in outer space.

In a film shown at the end of the exhibit, Kusama says that she paints in order to keep from killing herself. She has lived for the past 30 years or so in a psychiatric hospital. These days she has little contact with people. She goes to her studio every morning to paint, and then returns to the hospital. It is through her art that she stays alive and connected to the world. And through her idiosyncratic paintings and sculptures, we, the viewers, can enter her mind and experience a refreshingly different point of view.

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Suzanne Kamata
Suzanne Kamata is the author of Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008), the Editor of Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press, May 2008), and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2009).
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