”Unseen Reverberations from the Universe”
The life of the legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the world’s most successful living artist whose remarkable artistic vision has enchanted the world for over six decades, is a story punctuated by vivid highs and deep lows.
Born in Nagano in 1929 to a family of seedling merchants, Kusama experienced a childhood clouded by a philandering father and a violence-prone mother. From the young age of 10 Kusama began to experience dizzying hallucinations: flashes of light, auras, dense fields of dots, flowers that spoke to her and fabric patterns that came to life, multiplying and engulfing her. As Kusama fought to find her own meaning and place in the universe through the act of producing art, from within the phantasmagoria of her own mind came an onslaught of repetitions, accumulations and “self-obliterating” obsessions that provided psychosomatic release. In a 2016 interview she said, “I had dark days and unfortunate times, but I overcame them with the power of art.”
“Dissolution and accumulation; propagation and separation; particulate obliteration and unseen reverberations from the universe – these were to become the foundations of my art.”
An immense creativity flowered, with Kusama turning her attention to a multitude of media including painting, sculpture, performance, video, fashion and poetry. These featured motifs that would become mainstays of her artistic practice, including her beloved “spiritual” pumpkins, the “self-obliterating” polka dots and infinity nets that overran Kusama’s consciousness, and the cosmic infinity rooms that drew viewers irresistibly into Kusama’s extraordinary dreams.
“Infinite Spirituality”: Pumpkins
“The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was when I was in elementary school and went with my grandfather to visit a big seed-harvesting ground…and there it was: a pumpkin the size of a man’s head… It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner.”
Perhaps the most enduring and recognised of Kusama’s famed repertoire of motifs, the artist began working with the pumpkin in her teens. Detesting the four-year Nihonga (Japanese-style) painting course on which she was enrolled at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948, but relieved to be finally away from the watchful eye of her mother and constantly warring parents, Kusama painted pumpkins diligently, much of the time in her own room.
“It seems pumpkins do not inspire much respect,” Kusama once said. “But I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.”
In Kyoto, Kusama lived for around two years in the mountainside home of a haiku poet and his family. In her upper floor room, Kusama would spread a sheet of vellum paper on the carpet, line up her brushes, and meditate until the sun rose over Mount Higashiyama. Then she would recommence work on her “relentlessly realistic pictures of pumpkins”:
“I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely upon the form before me…I spent as much as a month facing a single pumpkin. I regretted even having to take time to sleep. Morning, noon, and night, I scrupulously painted each tiny bump on the rinds of my subjects.”
“I adore pumpkins. As my spiritual home since childhood, and with their infinite spirituality, they contribute to the peace of mankind across the world and to the celebration of humanity. And by doing so, they make me feel at peace.”
Over the decades the artist repeatedly revisited the squat, reassuring form of the pumpkin – in painting and sculpture, as well as poetry that praised its metaphysical qualities. In 1993, the pumpkin was transformed into a mirror room measuring two square metres at the centre of her solo presentation at the Venice Biennale, and in 1994 she installed a massive yellow and black-dotted pumpkin sculpture at the end of a pier at Benesse Art Site Naoshima, the first of many larger-than-life pumpkin sculptures Kusama would display outdoors throughout the 2000s.
This season Sotheby's will present two exceptional pumpkin works by Kusama at its 50th Anniversary Contemporary Evening Auction on 5 April: A-Pumpkin [BAGN8] (2011), a larger-than-life acrylic on canvas work, and Pumpkin (L) (2014), a rare example of the artist’s highly coveted sculptural pumpkins.
“Create, then Obliterate”: Polka Dots and Infinity Nets
“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
One of Kusama’s earliest surviving works is a drawing of her mother, completed when she was just 10 years old. Eyes closed, the woman is obliterated by a delicate veil of polka dots across her eyelids, cheeks, kimono, hair and even her surroundings, finally at peace with the fate dealt to her by the universe.
Compulsive self-obliteration through ritualistic replication forms the backbone of Kusama’s entire multidisciplinary oeuvre. Harking back to her earliest hallucinatory experiences and constantly fluctuating feelings of reality and unreality, Kusama exorcises her fears through compulsive creation “until I bury myself in the process”. Covering a body and its surroundings in polka dots, by Kusama’s logic, allows that body to be assimilated and absorbed into something timeless, thereby also freeing its creator to reach oblivion alongside its creation. Infinity nets followed the same logic, according to the artist in her autobiography: the “negative” mesh and the “positive” dots revealed on the ground “become one”, whilst “positive” phallic soft sculptures “become one” with the “negative” spaces between the protrusions, “and that is when I achieve obliteration”.
From 1967 to 1969, Kusama staged naked “happenings” in New York, daubing bodies with polka dots as participants cavorted to the sound of bongo drums. Actively involved in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, she even wrote to then-President Richard Nixon that she would adorn his "hard, masculine body" with polka dots so that they might “forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute, all together in the altogether”.
This spring season Sotheby's is delighted to present Kusama's Infinity Nets (QNTBH) (2006), a monumental acrylic on canvas work, that is an exemplary example of Kusama's Infinity Nets paintings.
“Endless Love”: Infinity Mirror Rooms
Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, and over the next few years participated in a number of shows around the city as she developed her practice. It was the Castellane Gallery which would later play host to her very first infinity mirror room in 1965 – Phalli’s Field (Floor Show). Mirrors multiplied the hallucinatory fields of red polka-dotted fabric tubers, whilst Kusama, wearing a red jumpsuit, lay down amidst her phallic creations like a sacrificial offering.
50 Years New in Asia: The Endless Universe of Yayoi Kusama
Just a year later, Kusama’s Peep Show (or Endless Love Show) opened at the same gallery. It was a sensation. The show consisted of a single multimedia installation – a hexagonal mirror room into which visitors could peep through a postcard-sized opening. Small red, white, blue, green and yellow light bulbs blinked at a furious speed as music played. In the brochure, Kusama wrote that Endless Love Show was about “Mechanization, Repetition, Obsession, Impulse, Vertigo, and Unrealized Infinite Love”, but she preferred the title Kusama’s Peep Show because it allows you to see things that you cannot touch”.
The 50th Anniversary Contemporary Evening Auction this season will include My Heart is Flying to the Universe (2018), marking the first Kusama mirror room to be offered at auction in Asia and the second time that a mirror room of this size has ever come to auction.
Kusama’s infinity rooms have engaged audiences across contrasting scales: tiny spaces visible only through a tantalising peephole, as well as life-sized immersive spaces that enfold viewers into her poetic, startling, and even terrifying visions of infinity. Flashing lights, pumpkins, golden lanterns, and even polka-dotted balloons are subjects that have allowed Kusama to fully pursue each of her ideas to a moving, mesmerising crescendo – the impermanence of life, the certitude of death, and the boundless love that flourishes in the space between:
“This was the materialisation of a state of rapture I myself had experienced, in which my spirit was whisked away to wander the border between life and death. [...] This was my living, breathing manifesto of Love. Thousands of illuminated colours blinking at the speed of light - isn’t this the very illusion of Life in our transient world? In the darkness that follows a single flash of light, our souls are lured back into the black silence of death. The kaleidoscope of our lives and joys, and the great, radiant drama of human life: a paper-thin instant, dependent upon denial and disconnection at one-second intervals. The psychedelic lights of a minute ago - were they a dream? An illusion? This is Shangri-La.”
Lead Image: Installation View of: Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (L), Pumpkin (M) And Pumpkin(S), 2014, Exhibited In London, Victoria Miro, Yayoi Kusama: Bronze Pumpkins, September – December 2014 © Yayoi Kusama