Viewing my first Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Net, was like experiencing the feeling of abruptly waking up from a dream in which one was falling towards something bottomless. Her work is dark, uncomfortable and indecipherable. In her autobiography, Kusama discusses her simultaneous fascination and disgust with all things pertaining to human sexuality. Her tortured relationship with the body and the mind is the root of her mental illness. Her discomfort has mounted so intensely over the years that it was enough of an impetus to commit herself to a psychiatric hospital in 1977.
Infinity Dots 2007
Photography by Hal Reiff of Kusama reclining on Accumulation No. 2. 1966. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Her fragmented perception of the world around her was not something developed in order to foster the artistic process, but rather a plague that has affected her since early childhood. Whether the viewer translates this as positive or negative, it is perhaps the reason why Kusama’s work has such emotional and conceptual depth. For the artist this was not just one element of her life, but its entirety. She writes in her autobiography: “One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern. I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space. This was not an illusion but reality itself.”
The visual fruit of her mind’s unrest is her prolific collection of work. Yayoi Kusama’s paintings and sculpture have a way of creating an immersive sensory experience for the viewer. Her Accumulation worksand Compulsion Furniture make one feel as if they are under attack. They are all-encompassing, occupying every space in your mind, as they do in hers. Her work is a projection of her own consuming mental illness onto the viewer, so that we can truly see what she sees. Her work seeks out and identifies the fears of the individual, namely, lack of control. Perhaps the same lack of control Kusama experiences when her visions overcome her.
Yayoi Kusama.Accumulation 1963 – 64, New York.
Yayoi Kusama ,Compulsion Furniture, 1962-63/1993, Acrylic on canvas and mixed media
As a child, Kusama had auditory and visually extraordinary interactions with her inanimate surroundings. She speaks of a day during her childhood when the violets in the field surrounding her home spoke to her, using her name, until their calls became screams. These experiences were most likely promulgated by a fear of the people around her, later developing into a fear more specifically channeled at the sex organs of those around her and herself. The repetitive phallic imagery in much of her sculpture communicates the intense anxiety she associates with the sex act. When this anxiety is considered with the knowledge of the performance orgies Kusama organized in the 1960’s, Kusama’s focus becomes muddled. This shows the shifting quality of her work. It targets whatever anxiety is most oppressive at the point of creation.
I see Kusama’s work as a response to what seems to her an oppressive world. The artistic process is her“search for truth.” This search is marked physically by her Infinity Net’s. Kusama’s Infinity Nets wave in and out of each other an innumerable amount of times. She constructs her compositions with no frame or pattern in mind, but draws purely upon the rhythm of her mind. The processes of a mind, especially one as troubled as Kusama’s, are something so intricate that it seems an impossibility that one could envision them without separating them. The aesthetic value of Kusama’s compositions is that she is able to represent every tangent of her mind simultaneously. The technical skill of her works is unquestionable. She does not once drop a line or a pattern.
Infinity Nets Yellow.
Viewing her canvases within a frame seems to obstruct them. Her paintings go on forever. They seem to strain against the frames they’re placed in, ready to burst farther into infinity. In her autobiography, Kusama describes her artistic process as a treatment for her mental illness. She would stay up days at a time, not necessarily as a matter of dedication, but from the need to release the forms that plagued her onto the canvas. Her work is in the purest form a projection. Her work is a visual manifestation of her anxieties, fears and repulsions. Her presentation of her own reality also reveals to us her vision of the duality of nature, at times both hostile and benign.
“Self – Portrait” Yayoi Kusama, 2009.
The works in which she quotes the natural form take on a predatory and aggressive tone. By claiming natural and human forms and slightly perverting them into more amorphous forms, Kusama’s work claims a space somewhere between dreams and nightmares. Kusama’s self-proclaimed effort is to reunite humanity more firmly with the unadulterated beauty of the natural world and the human mind. Two things which strangely enough are the root of Kusama’s psychological discomfort. She writes towards the end of her memoirs: “The arrogance of human beings, who have progressed so far through science and the mastery of machinery, has caused them to lose touch with the radiance of life and led to the impoverishment of the imagination.” Kusama’s work is both noble and extraordinary in its conception and execution. In a lifetime of oppressive mental illness, Kusama has identified and revealed true beauty, which is neither perfect nor wholesome, and has expressed that beauty with an elegance and honesty which indicates her masterful skill.
Camille Okhio is a contributing writer for by such and such.