My first encounter with Yayoi Kusama’s work was almost impossible to forget. Rounding the corner of a street in the Japanese mountain town of Matsumoto, I came face to face with a giant, winding cluster of tulips, bursting skyward from the floor. Garishly coloured, as tall as a house and patterned with gigantic polka dots, the complex, twisting maze of stems and buds demanded exploration and discovery from every conceivable angle. The permanent installation, entitled ‘The Visionary Flowers’ is a fascinating piece of contemporary sculpture. The monstrously kitsch flowers seemed both deeply empty in that pop-art way, yet at the same time hugely personal. This first meeting is amongst the my most memorable that I’ve had with any artist.
But it’s when you encounter your second, third and fourth pieces by Yayoi Kusama that things start to make sense. The 86 year old Japanese artist, born in Matsumoto before stints of various lengths in Tokyo and New York which preceded her permanent residency in a centre for the mentally ill, will cover absolutely anything with dots. From canvases,to entire apartments, and even naked bodies participating in an orgy, nothing escapes adornment by Kusama and her brush. But this is not a Lichtenstein style deconstruction. For Kusama, the dots are both a lifeline and a curse.
“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate,” This is how Kusama describes the genesis of a 1954 painting of a spotted flower. These dots, and her endless repetition of them onto surfaces are a symptom of her obsessional compulsive disorder, but they also provide a means for her to escape herself. In her words, they are “a way to infinity.” In the repetitious nature of of panting these multitudes of dots, she finds peace. For Kusama, the orbs have come to symbolise celestial bodies, and even the entire universe. Through the act of painting, she escapes herself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in her ever popular installation, The Infinity Rooms. Having toured the world, these chambers, of apparently finite but seemingly infinite space, allow the viewer to position their heads in a small window, and gaze into a mirrored room full of hanging balls of light. Reflected in infinity, the viewer feels lost, peaceful, and atomised by the endless, dotted universe. Before them lies an infinite star field. Here Kusama allows her viewers peace, solitude, and an understanding of herself.
Kusama’s influence can be felt across the art world, inspiring avant-garde contemporaries such as Warhol, with whom the shared practice of prolific production invites tempting but ultimately fruitless comparison. But whilst Warhol sought to question the market definitions of art, to Kusama its purpose and value is self evident. It’s a necessity. And whilst Warhol kept his critical ambitious ambiguous and playful, Kusama was openly political. She once invited Richard Nixon for a session of vigorous love making if he would only declare an end to the Vietnam War, and participated in in a homosexual wedding all the way back in the 70s.
But what of the individual herself, attempting to lose herself in a crowd of spots? She is rarely photographed away from her art, or out of clothes that don’t camouflage her into the work she is exhibiting. So whilst she’s not quite yet become one with infinity, she’s still making her way there, one meticulously painted white dot after the other.