It doesn’t matter where you live, if you have a social media account, you’ve probably seen work by Yayoi Kusama. Who is this Japanese lady that’s taken over our feeds, what’s the deal with her affinity for polka dots, and what makes her installations so picturesque, cutting-edge, and Instagram worthy?
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist who works in multiple distinct disciplines, including sculpture, performance, fashion, and painting. She is associated with American Abstract expressionism, Art Brut, feminist art, and conceptual art just to name a few. She first gained worldwide recognition for her large colorful immersive installations and soft sculptures but has grown, changed, and tried new things over multiple decades.
Kusama was born back in 1929 in the city of Matsumoto, Japan during the Great Depression. Her family were hard-working merchants who owned a seed farm and weren't understanding or supportive of their daughter’s growing interest in the creative arts. Things were so bad at home that some accounts state Kusama's mother was physically abusive. Because of that, the young artist started developing symptoms of mental illness at an early age, including vivid hallucinations starting at 10 years old. Despite her family's hopes that she would uphold tradition and become a respectable housewife, Kusama instead enrolled in the Kyoto City University of Arts after the end of WWII and began studying Japanese Nihonga style painting.
Art began to be the driving force in her life and in 1958, Kusama moved to New York City with the goal of finding worldwide fame. Inspired by the works of Georgia O'Keefe and the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, Kusama began exhibiting large-scale abstract paintings of polkadots, which she referred to as "infinity nets". The process of painting these nets provided great therapeutic value for Kusama, whose mental health sadly hadn't improved since leaving Japan. In her own words, art had become a way to "fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method she had found that relieved her illness".
The polka dot continued to be a leitmotif in her practice as she transitioned from painting to performance and installation. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kusama organized public events in which she painted polka dots on herself and nude performers as a form of protest. Many of her works during that time held a strong political stance against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the artist displayed her work entitled “Narcissus Garden” at the 33rd Venice Biennale despite not being formally included in the exhibition. It wasn’t until 27 years later that she was invited to represent the Japan Pavilion in the 45th Venice Biennale.
Leaving New York behind, Yayoi Kusama returned to Japan in 1973. Then, in 1977, after years of struggles, she voluntarily checked herself into a mental institution in Tokyo and has been a permanent resident there ever since. To this day, she spends 9 hours each day working in her large Tokio studio, and returning to the hospital overnight.
The art world moved on and, due to the dynamic and highly competitive nature of the New York art scene, Kusama was all but forgotten during the late 1970s and 1980s. However, in 1989, curator and Asian art expert Alexandra Munroe organized the first retrospective of Kusama's works in the Center for International Contemporary Arts. Ever since then, the world has renewed its fascination with the works of Yayoi Kusama, especially what she calls environmental art: large, all-encompassing immersive installations in which the viewer gets to enter Kusama’s mind and her world.
Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, which she has been developing for over two decades, are mirrored installations filled with brightly colored pumpkin sculptures, polka dots, and UV lights that invite audiences to enter and become enveloped by the artist’s visions, empathizing with her state of mind. One of Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, a work entitled All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, broke the record of visitors at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2017. Over 34 thousand images of the work were shared across social media, and the hashtag #InfiniteKusama garnered over 330 million engagements on Instagram. These days, the world still can’t seem to get enough of her works: a new exhibit in the Hirshhorn Museum entitled One with Eternity is open to visitors this year, and two of Kusama’s Infinity Rooms will be on view in Tate Modern until June 2023.
Still active after over seven decades, Yayoi Kusama remains a trailblazer within the art world. The artist spearheaded many vital, major shifts in 20th century fine arts, from her early soft sculptures and socially engaged happenings, to her expansion of multidisciplinary art forms. More importantly, she has paved the way for many other Asian and female artists to find recognition, as well as opened up a discussion about mental health while bringing fine art closer to people. Kusama’s works are unapologetically visceral, actively blurring the line between the artwork, the artist, and the audience as well. They call upon the observer to (quite literally) step into a space of collective healing.