The blockbuster appeal and contemporary allure of Yayoi Kusama’s art lies in its infinite indefinability, rooted in the blurred lines of fantasy and reality, emblematic of her creative journey and our world today.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of David Zwirner
91-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, described as a “mastermind of obsessively dotted paintings, hallucinatory pumpkins and sometimes blandly decorative installations,” is not merely a household name in the contemporary art world. She is also part of mainstream popular culture today, practically a global name.
The world’s best-selling female artist even had her own balloon at the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York last year, “Love Flies Up to the Sky,” a round personality that has the appearance of the sun or a starfish or both, along with 300 of Kusama’s hand-painted signature dots. The balloon floated at 34 feet tall and stretched about 30 feet wide. Yet even the organisers of Macy’s did not know what to make of her creation for the parade.
This unknowability seems to be a consistent quality of the art shown in Kusama’s exhibitions, which over the past decade have become increasingly known as “the art world’s equivalent of Star Wars premieres.” With the advent of social media, especially Instagram, Kusama’s art—with its vibrant colors, bold patterns and immersive qualities—took on a whole new tenor, becoming the Holy Grail for social media influencers and users, cementing her place in early 21st century arts and culture.
In November 2019, the highly anticipated Kusama blockbuster exhibition at David Zwirner in New York saw hundreds of fans queuing up hours before the opening, with a line that went along West 20th Street in Chelsea, all the way between 10th and 11th avenues. Some people waited up to four hours in the cold autumn evening before they could get into the gallery. Most visitors turned up to “experience the wonder of the artist’s popular Infinity Mirrored Rooms.”
The latest edition at the show, titled DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE (2019) is essentially a small cube space, which turns entirely dark when entered, followed by glittery LED lights that begin to flash and change colours from white to red in “endless refractions that create a new, infinite horizon.”
While the beauty and magic of her art is undeniable even to the most jaded viewer, that is not the main reason for Kusama’s blockbuster appeal and contemporary allure. This is not something understood by many, least of all the museums which eagerly bring in her artworks to create sprawling exhibitions that draw droves of visitors they so desperately need, especially in the past few years filled with highly preferred Netflix-type entertainment options.
The truth is Kusama’s work resonates with people from all walks of life, especially in these times, due to its infinite indefinability. As visible and documented as her art and artistic journey has been, the artist and her creations have always been undeniably enigmatic, rooted in the melding of reality and fantasy, making it difficult to see where one aspect begins and the other ends.
The artist’s very life experiences, and telling of it, carry this marked unguardedness distorted by varying perceptions and contradictory narratives. Currently living voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital in Japan, Kusama’s ambitions to create the kind of art that goes viral began even before the technology for such a notion was created; according to curator Lynn Zelevansky’s writing in the catalogue for the exhibition that brought Kusama back into the spotlight in the West in 1998 after years of oblivion, the artist “wanted her work to invade and conquer the world like an epidemic.”
Unfortunately, these ambitions stalled during her years in New York where she suffered nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, exacerbated by the futile desire to join a major gallery in the city while at least one white male artist copied her art and earned accolades for it. Art historian Midori Yamamura “draws connections between Kusama’s deteriorating mental health, her career stress, and the triumphalist political and cultural climate of the New York art world in the 1960s, which, in the era of its most influential dealer, Leo Castelli, was decidedly American, white, and male.”
Then, in November 1975, when she was back living in Japan, Kusama wrote a manifesto in conjunction with a small gallery show, titled “Odyssey of My Struggling Soul,” known as the “founding document of her narrative of psychosis-driven art.”
Yet, as she became more popular in a thriving 1980s Japan, she attempted to bolster her story of origin by including “Infinity Net”–style loops to old watercolours from her family’s home. This was uncovered by Yamamura, who also found out about the “the artist’s retconning of having experienced hallucinations as a child, a claim that Kusama quietly dropped from her biography only in 2010.”
There is something so intrinsically contemporary about this blurring of biographical struggles into purposeful narratives behind equally quixotic artworks. It is everything we have come to recognise about this day and age we live in, resonant of the very nature of social media we use on a daily basis and the spin we have gotten so used to expecting. It is a paradoxical kaleidoscope of escapism when the immersive art installations, soft sculptures and paintings people seek to lose themselves in, while better affirming their social media identities, parallels the blurred lines of fact and fiction in our post-truth era.
Take for example, one of Kusama’s The Moment of Regeneration (2004) featuring 54 scarlet-coloured soft sculptures with iconic black dots as appendages growing from the ground in various directions, akin to sinister or clownish tentacles. The installation is meant to symbolise the psychological nature of human beings, the struggles and horrors we experience while caught in the twists and turns of this epoch. Yet it is equally reminiscent of the artist’s own life path and creative ascension, fantastical and real all at once.