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Yayoi Kusama, Louis Vuitton shop window display with Tentacles, 2012/2015 ©Yayoi Kusama/Louis Vuitton. Photo: Vegard Kleven/HOK

Hostage of Infinity 0

The exhibition “In Infinity”, by Yayoi Kusama, at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet

Līga Gaile

Summer is nearing its end, but if you happen to have a few free days to spend in the Nordic countries, you can still catch two exhibitions featuring Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in her first-ever retrospective tour in Scandinavia. Through 11 September, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet is showing the retrospective exhibition “Yayoi Kusama – In Infinity”, which features the artist’s most notable paintings, sculptures and installations. The exhibition will be traveling on to Finland, but before its arrival there, two of Kusama’s temporary installations can be seen in Helsinki through 9 October – one in Esplanadi Park, the other in the Winter Garden.

Yayoi Kusama is usually described as an artist who marches to the beat of her own drummer, expressing herself in various mediums and with an assortment of materials. One can only admire her abilities and drive as a woman from a traditional Japanese family who eventually became not only a peer of Warhol and Duchamp, but who, despite mental illness, has attained the status of a classic master of contemporary art. Her art arose from having, at times, found herself in the grips of hallucinations, something upon which she has expanded greatly over a lifetime of interviews, publicity materials, and in her autobiography. She creates her peculiar, self-sufficient universe without any direct connection to today’s events and issues, and, as she always points out, her largest source of inspiration comes from her own thoughts and visions. 

Yayoi Kusama, Self Portrait, 1952 © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

Yayoi Kusama (1929) was born and raised in a well-to-do family in Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture. The family owned a plant nursery, and as a child, Kusama would often make detailed drawings of blossoms and leaves. Unfortunately, the family did not support this passion for art that their youngest daughter had. Kusama’s mother was especially hard-set against her daughter’s inclinations, and tried to raise her in preparation for becoming a traditional Japanese housewife. These impediments, however, did not lessen Kusama’s passions; instead, they strengthened her determination and creative imagination. Over time, Kusama talked her parents into allowing her to go to art school in Kyoto, where she then studied nihonga – a Japanese painting style that utilizes traditional techniques and materials. 

Eventually, the art teachers’ conventional approach to original expression becomes too restricting for Kusama, and she begins using other techniques and materials in her search for her true form of expression. Kusama began participating in exhibitions already in her teenage years, and she even holds several solo shows in Japan during the 1950s. At this time she creates many works on traditional Japanese paper with gouache, ink and pastels. Several of these early works can be seen in the Stockholm exhibition – dark-colored watercolors feature plant motifs and biomorphic forms, interchanging with graphic fields of dots and lines done in pastels and ink.

Yayoi Kusama, The Parting, 1952 © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

Unfortunately, many of Kusama’s early works were lost when she burnt them before emigrating to the USA. In 1955, while still living in Japan, Kusama shows her works at the International Watercolor Exhibition, 18th Biennial, held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Later, Kusama would write to an artist who intrigued her to no end, Georgia O’Keefe, sending along several of her watercolors and asking for advice in advancing her career in the US. O’Keefe replies to Kusama, and they continue corresponding for several years.

Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama with one of her Infinity Net paintings in New York, ca. 1961 © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

In 1957 Kusama emigrates to the US, at first to Seattle, where she holds her first solo show, but a year later she moves to New York. Upon entering the very active 1960s art scene in New York, Kusama works very hard and continues to search for new forms of expression, despite her fragile financial situation. In 1959, an oil painting by Kusama being shown by the Bratta gallery receives acclaim, and she later continues this thread with the series titled “Infinity Nets”. In short, the paintings consist of numerous tiny arcs drawn by hand, densely covering the entire monochromatic canvas from one end to the other. The power in these works is not in their composition, but in their intensity and the fascinatingly concentrated amount of work that went into creating them – which the viewer immediately notices and feels upon looking at them. The first work from this series was well received by the critics, including the minimalist artist Donald Judd, who at the time was still working as an art critic. Later, Judd will become a close friend and supporter of Kusama. 

Yayoi Kusama, Installation view of Kusama in Infinity Mirror Room - Phalli's Field, at her solo exhibition "Floor Show" at R. Castellane Gallery, New York, 1965 © Yayoi Kusama Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery

In 1961, Kusama exhibits a monumental, ten-meter-long work from the “Infinity Net” series at the Stephen Radich Gallery. The original work turns out to be too large for the exhibition space, so Kusama must decrease its size by cutting off a slice along the whole length of the piece; this slice does not go to waste, however, for Kusama utilizes it in her future performances. In interviews held at this time, Kusama explains that the art of her “Infinity Nets” series is based on hallucinations stemming from the mental illness that has plagued her since childhood. An oft-mentioned episode is her memory of the flowery print from a tablecloth which, in her hallucinations, begins to spread – taking over the floor, the walls, the curtains, until it threatens to take over Kusama herself. In a sense, her art illustrates these visions, thereby helping Kusama to accept and rework these obtrusive hallucinations. Several works from the “Infinity Net” series are on view in Stockholm, including “No F” (1959) and “Infinity Nets Yellow” (1960), among others.

The art world of 1960s New York, in which Kusama begins to actively participate in, is characterized by new trends – the period of abstract expressionism comes to an end, and a torrent of new movements begin, such as pop art, op art, minimalism, video art, first-wave feminism, installations, and performance art. These new trends in New York will play a significant role in the future evolution of contemporary art. For Kusama, this period of active diversity in art serves as fertile ground for her quests. In 1963, Kusama presents the installation “Aggregation – One Thousand Boats Show”, at the Gertrude Stein gallery: a salvaged row boat is completely covered with little phallus-like stuffed fabric “growths”, while the walls and ceiling are wallpapered with 999 images of this same boat. The work was Kusama’s first spatial installation, and is viewed as one of the first-ever examples of art installation.

Yayoi Kusama, Traveling Life, 1964 © Yayoi Kusama, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Norihiro Ueno

Over the next years, Kusama continues to work on this sculpture series which, often times, consists of furniture found on the street which has been painted white and then covered with these stuffed fabric “growths”. This series of works is recurrently interpreted as being sensually erotic, but as Kusama herself explains, contrary to the impression generated by the works, she is not a sexually liberated person, but rather, is very shy and timid, and her artworks serve as a catalyst for this modesty. Another theme noticeable in this series of works can be clearly felt in the works that have been chosen for the Stockholm exhibition, namely, the feminist aspects in “Ironing Board” (1963) and “Traveling Life” (1964).

Continuing to experiment with surfaces and materials, Kusama begins using food. In several pieces she  takes macaroni and covers various objects with it, including the floor and even a human model participating in the performance piece “Macaroni Girl” (1964). These experiments are Kusama’s reaction to the overabundance she sees in America, which starkly contrasts to the almost destitute conditions of post-war Japan, as well to her own financial difficulties in America, living practically “hand-to-mouth”. 

Kusama with Macaroni Girl. Dressing Table and Infinity Net Painting, ca. 1964 © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

Installation view, Yayoi Kusama in Narcissus Garden at the Venice Biennial, Italy, 1966 © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

In 1966 Kusama participates in the Venice Biennale for the first time. She creates the installation “Narcissus Garden”, which is made up of 1500 manufactured plastic mirrored balls. Kusama explains that the objective of the piece is to fascinate the viewer as one sees hundreds of reflections of him- or herself, and to create an illusory fusion with nature, for the balls symbolize the Moon, Sun and Earth. In response to the huge interest her piece generates, Kusama begins selling the balls for two dollars apiece, which invokes the ire of the Biennale’s organizers. Kusama responds by saying that art should be an average, daily consumer product – such as socks or groceries – and not something that is available only to a narrow group of wealthy people. A copy of “Narcissus Garden” can be currently seen in Stockholm.

Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration, 1967 Photo by Harrie Verstappen. © Yayoi Kusama, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

A close link between the artist and nature is very characteristic of Kusama’s modes of expression, something that is organically revealed in her performances and happenings. Kusama was one of the first artists to hold happenings on the streets of New York and in her atelier. Inspired by the hippy movement, Kusama’s happenings often consisted of participants taking off their clothes so that Kusama could paint their bodies – along with surrounding objects and her own body – in order to, as she says, attain the obliteration of one’s inner Self and meld with the Universe. These happenings were both orgiastic expressions of hippy “free love”, as well as political protest rallies. Eventually, Kusama made the film “Kusama Self-Obliteration”, which features fragments of her earlier works, polka-dotted landscapes, and scenes from her orgy-happenings; the film received several awards at experimental film festivals.

Kusama continued to actively organize both political and orgiastic happenings, as well as publish her own newspaper, until the early 1970s. She also turned to designing clothing at this time, at first with which to clothe her orgy participants (with holes in all the “right places”), and which she sold at her new shop in New York, Kusama Fashion Co., Ltd.

Yayoi Kusama, KUSAMA Fashion show at her boutique, New York, 1968 © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

Kusama’s New York period is brought to an end by the loss of her friend; Joseph Cornell, with whom Kusama had a very close relationship, dies in 1972. The following year, Kusama heads back to Japan. In 1977, after recurring bouts of hallucinations and panic attacks, Kusama decides to move into a psychiatric hospital on a permanent basis; she continues to live and work there today. Here, Kusama works with ceramics, watercolors and collage, and also becomes very productive at writing. New works of hers are gradually exhibited in both Japan and Europe, and in 1989 she holds her first retrospective in New York – an event that heightens interest in her around the world.

In 1993, but this time as a representative from Japan, Kusama returns to the Venice Biennale with a free-standing retrospective exhibition – testimony to her finally having achieved recognition in her own home country. 

In 2000 Kusama begins work on a huge mirrored installation that uses hundreds of colored light bulbs. Rhythmic black polka-dots appear in her installations, a pattern which, along with spatial objects (i.e., pumpkins) covered in polka-dots, become her trademark. (The pumpkin first appears in 1994, as a large-scale, permanent outdoor installation on the island of Naoshima.) 

Yayoi Kusama, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2016 Installation View at Moderna Museet/ArkDes, Stockholm, as a part of the exhibition Yayoi Kusama – In Infinity, 2016. 
© Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York. Foto: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet

Over the years, Kusama has worked with several famous fashion labels – Issey Miyake, Marc Jacobs, and Louis Vuitton. For the latter, she created a store window display featuring a fantastical world made up of red and white polka-dots, with a wax figure of herself in the center, surrounded by individual polka-dotted tentacles rising from the ground; this wondrous piece is also on view in Stockholm. A love for fashion design weaves throughout Kusama’s career. Textiles are also used in spatial installations, as in her piece for the 2006 Biennial in Singapore, where she wrapped lanes of park trees with red and white polka-dotted fabric. Similarly dressed objects can currently be seen in Stockholm, in the gardens of the Moderna Museet, as well as in Helsinki.

In 2009 Kusama begins her next, and current, series of works – large-format oil paintings called “My Eternal Soul” – a selection of which can be seen in the Stockholm exhibition. At first planned as being a series of 100 works, as one could expect of Kurasama, there are now almost one thousand units.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 2014 In front of Yellow Tree Installation View at Moderna Museet/ArkDes, Stockholm, as a part of the exhibition Yayoi Kusama – In Infinity, 2016.
© Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet

The assembled works, objects, installation and materials on view at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet make for an excellent opportunity to learn about this unique artist, her multi-faceted talents, determination, and fantastic abilities. If you can’t make it to Stockholm, the next (and last) stop for this exhibition will be in Helsinki, this coming October.