Kusama's enduring love of polka dots

The 87-year-old Japanese artist has two major exhibitions in Japan and the US

WASHINGTON • She has two major exhibitions opening simultaneously in Japan and the United States at the venerable age of 87 - but Yayoi Kusama is nowhere near her last hurrah.

Living and creating are inseparable for the red-wigged avant-garde Japanese artist, as she explained to reporters in Tokyo on the eve of her show opening at the National Art Center.

"I'm grappling with creating art from morning to night every day," she said, sitting in a wheelchair wearing a kimono with one of her trademark yellow and black polka dot patterns.

"I want to create with a serious mind as long as my life continues."

Kusama has authored no fewer than 520 pieces as part of her ongoing My Eternal Soul painting and sculpture series that began in 2009.

Artist Yayoi Kusama in front of sculptures from her series, Flowers That Bloom At Midnight and Flowers That Bloom Tomorrow, at the Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul exhibition at the National Art Center in Tokyo. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

And that is only one of many projects in this latest chapter of her 65-year career.

Her polka dots have adorned everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to buildings and naked bodies.

Organisers of her show, which opened on Thursday at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden - one day after the Tokyo exhibit - were expecting such a crush of people that they have resorted to crowd control.

The museum is issuing timed passes. The first two weeks sold out before the show even started, 120 new gallery staff and visitor attendants were hired and the museum is offering food and beverages for the first time.

With the rate at which pictures of her installations are jamming up Instagram feeds, it is easy to forget that one of Japan's most successful and beloved living artists once fell into a period of oblivion.

During a 16-year stint in New York, struggling to gain recognition as a female and Asian artist in the city's white male-dominated art world of the 1960s, she staged "happenings" at the height of the sexual liberation movement, where people stripped naked and had their bodies painted with polka dots on Wall Street or Central Park.

She also launched a fashion line, established a Church of Self-Obliteration and styled herself the "High Priestess of Polka Dots" to officiate at a gay wedding.

By the time she returned to Japan in 1973, she was burnt out. Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric ward, where she has lived ever since.

It was not until the 1990s that she was "rediscovered", her polka dots and spotted pumpkins a perfect find for a highly commercialised art market, which soon made her style instantly recognisable.

To enter one of the six "infinity mirror rooms" at the heart of the Kusama show at the Hirshhorn is an unsettling trip inside a troubled mind, replete with polka dots, balloons and LEDs.

The Hirshhorn show makes barely a passing reference to the neuroses Kusama has channelled into art, but curator Mika Yoshitake suggested that was a deliberate effort to not "pathologise her mental illness as the source for everything". Instead, it focuses on the artist's celebrated "infinity mirrors", which provide exactly the kind of immersive and spellbinding experience that many museums seek today - resonating with the public without need for heavy contextualisation or explanation.

The visitor's own reflection and those of the objects inside the room are repeated endlessly, hinting at the underlying paradox of experiencing infinity in a closet. "It's important to experience the rooms without having to necessarily know who she is," Ms Yoshitake told AFP.

Kusama's Phalli's Field (1965), reproduced in Washington, is a mirrored room filled with hundreds of white stuffed fabric penises with red dots.

She has said it was a way for her to overcome her fear of sex after her mother made a young Kusama spy on her philandering father.

In pulling the pink curtains to enter the large, dotted pink balloon mirrored dome at the centre of Dots Obsession - Love Transformed Into Dots (2007), visitors experience something akin to the hallucinations Kusama has said she had as a child, with the surroundings covered in a repeating pattern.

Large balloons hang from the ceiling or block the view in this psychedelic environment, where the artist herself appears covered in dots and eating flowers in a video projection while reciting her poem A Manhattan Suicide Addict. Her more recent "infinity rooms" are darkened spaces that offer a brief respite from the frenzy of daily life - 30 seconds each at the Hirshhorn.

The flickering lanterns in Infinity Mirrored Room - Aftermath Of Obliteration Of Eternity (2009) are reminiscent of Japan's "toro nagashi" summer ceremony, where paper lanterns are floated down the river to honour ancestors or in commemoration of victims of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The show closes with The Obliteration Room, which Ms Yoshitake called a "modern-day version" of the artist's 1960s happenings. Visitors are invited to place polka-dot stickers all over the white decor.

"It is a very positive, engaging experience, but it comes from something that is much darker, political, from the 1960s," Ms Yoshitake said.

It is also far more sanitised.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Kusama's enduring love of polka dots'. Print Edition | Subscribe