by Sukanya GargAug 27, 2019
Last summer, I was trekking along the Dhauladhar range of mountains of the Himalayan foothills in India when, on my treks, I was often stung by a wild weed I subsequently learned was called the stinging nettle. Later, the owner of my homestay told me that the pain could be alleviated by applying the juice of the nettle leaves itself or the juice of dock leaves, a plant that often grows around the nettle. This new found knowledge surprised me with its material and spiritual profundity of the antidote being found within or around the poison.
It is only now, as I write about Yayoi Kusama’s extraordinary artistic oeuvre, that I revisit the revelation. The nonagenarian Japanese artist, whose quintessential polka dots, the latter historically being a symbol of plague and disease, are a manifestation of her hallucinogenic visions on account of psychological distress, has alchemised the form, which while emblematic of her mental ‘disease’ evoke the sublime through her works. This tendency to obliterate the source of fear and distress through an obsessive repetition of its visual image forms the bedrock of the style of art she refers to as ‘Kusama art’.
The polka-dotted inflatable phallic sculptural forms hanging from the ceiling and springing out from the floor of a dark mirrored room create an illusion of infinity in Kusama’s work Love is Calling, which was on display at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The 560 square feet Infinity Room that Kusama first exhibited in 2013 in Japan is the largest of the 20 or more such mirrored rooms.
The phallic leitmotif, like the polka dots, has been a constant across Kusama’s practice. The form was inspired by the trauma of her childhood years when her mother coerced her into spying on her philandering father and the visual memories of his sexual encounters caused psychological damage, creating an aversion to sex. To escape from the abusive environment of her family who did not encourage her art, she migrated to the United States in the late 1950s where she soon gained recognition with her avant-garde minimalist ‘Infinity Nets’ series of paintings and her anti-war activist performances in which she painted her signature polka dots on naked participants who protested against the violence of the Vietnam War. In the work Anatomic Explosion (1968), Kusama documented her protest in front of the New York Stock Exchange against the capitalism that helped finance the war. She further organised orgiastic gatherings of people who she painted in vibrantly coloured psychedelic polka dots as a form of art therapy to recover from her fear of sex. Kusama channelled her hallucinations of polka-dotted visions to paint the form obsessively on canvases, objects, furniture, people and walls, each dot becoming an antidote to her mental trauma, a process she termed ‘self-obliteration’.
Kusama’s fixation with the phallic form also stems from her phobia of sex. In her ‘Aggregation’ series, she created sculptural works in which hand-stitched phallic forms protruded from various objects like boats, furniture and walls. This was around the time when she began exploring the space beyond the canvas which over the course of her career expanded towards infinity. While she continued to work across painting, sculpture, performance art, writing, poetry, outdoor installations, film, fashion, and product design, she began exploring spatial intervention more seriously when she created the first Infinity Room called Phalli’s Field in 1965. While the work circled back to the phallic motif, the design intervention of using mirrors created an architecture of infinite space. This was the beginning of what revolutionised her career so much so that in 2016, she was chosen as one of the world’s most influential people by TIME magazine. Since then, her exhibitions of infinity rooms like Love is Calling have had waiting lines of over five hours for a few seconds of viewing time. One of the most popular artists of her time and definitely the most distinguished to come from Japan, it is no surprise that the hashtag 'yayoikusama' has a following of over 880,000 people on Instagram. In the age of selfies, her works are instagrammed incessantly and despite the artist’s reclusive nature now, her following grows by leaps and bounds.
For an artist who was initially inspired by western abstract expressionism leading her to move from Kyoto to New York, over the course of her life, Kusama has been the torchbearer of numerous art styles including pop art, minimalism, Art Brut, activist art, performance art and immersive art.
A walk into the mirrored space of Love is Calling offered the viewer an experience of interconnected transcendence, a merging into the cosmos. The work is accompanied by a soundtrack – the recitation of her poem Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears in Japanese.
Devoting all my heart to you, I have lived through to this day
Hoping to leave beautiful footprints at the end of my life
I spend each day praying that my wish will be fulfilled
This is my message of love to you.
Kusama sends out this message of universal love from the Seiwa Mental Hospital in Tokyo that she voluntarily admitted herself into in 1977, where she has continued to live, practicing from a studio next to the psychiatric facility. For someone who has been painting for 81 years now, Kusama’s oeuvre is an antithesis of her condition, the vibrancy of her polka dots in sharp contrast to the anxieties of her mind. Her act of obsessive repetition recalls a sort of meditation, a silent chanting for redemption; her art being the antidote to her life.
The exhibition Love is Calling was accompanied by a presentation called Beyond Infinity: Contemporary Art after Kusama, offering insights into Kusama’s influences and her legacy on contemporary art. While the exhibition is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains part of ICA collection.