Yayoi Kusama's dot paintings are obsessive, weird, inspired
Yayoi Kusama's dot paintings are obsessive, weird, inspired - why can't we see more of her?
By Germaine Greer The Guardian, Monday 25 May 2009
Yayoi Kusama is an important artist who has been working internationally for nearly 50 years. Her work has been featured twice at the Venice Biennale, and hardly a year goes by without a solo show somewhere in Japan, Europe or the US - yet she has not had a major show in London since 2000. For an artist of her stature, that retrospective at the Serpentine and a couple of more recent shows at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London simply don't cut it. In 2005, her work was shown at Tate Liverpool as part of the Summer of Love show of art of the psychedelic era, as if her art was important only as evidence of the mindset of a particular moment, when she has been working with an intensity amounting to ferocity ever since she left New York and returned to Japan. This year, a major exhibition entitled Mirrored Years, originally curated by the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, has travelled to Sydney, where it has caused a good deal of excitement.
Kusama was born 80 years ago into a well-to-do, traditionalist Japanese family. From an early age she showed signs of mental disturbance, which her family construed as simple misbehaviour. Though she was pressured to make a conventional marriage, she was eventually allowed to study traditional nihonga painting in Kyoto. From the beginning, her obsessiveness manifested itself in particular forms of all-over patterning, at which she worked for thousands of hours; her trademark became her use of dots that obliterated the forms beneath and drew them into a single plane - obliteration as liberation, or vice versa. She has always been frank about the psychotherapeutic function of what she does, which might explain the indifference of the London art establishment to her work.
When she was 27 she left Japan for New York, where she felt she could immerse herself in her insistent mental processes and work out her fixations on a larger scale. Within 18 months she had her first solo exhibition of five enormous Infinity Net paintings, in which meticulously painted free-hand circles netted the entire expanse of canvas, white on white. New York artists bought her work, thinking it was like their own, but Kusama - then as now - was following her own ineluctable agenda. Warhol would use mechanical repetition; Kusama made herself the machine. She has said repeatedly that she was not concerned with surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art or minimalism, but only with escaping her mental suffering through her art. For her, art and art therapy were the same thing. Sanity was the illusion.
Because Kusama's Infinity Net and Accumulation works are, in her words, "about an obsession: infinite repetition", it is not possible to comprehend the nature of her enterprise if all you see is a single something with dots on it. It is only when you step into one of her mirrored installations and see those familiar black dots, in three sizes, painted at random on a pumpkin-yellow ground and multiplied infinitely, that you can feel something of the panic that saw ambulances called nightly to her derelict studio in Manhattan. Her work is often ostensibly playful; she uses found objects and tosses them about apparently at random. But, given the doggedness of her iteration, they eventually transcend their banal natures and become environments in themselves. If Kusama sews up long pockets and stuffs them to make phalloid objects, as Louise Bourgeois has been known to do, she will not content herself with assemblages of three or four, but will go on to sew hundreds upon hundreds of them, to cover a sofa frame, or a rowing boat, with innumerable wobbly nobbles that it would be suggestive to sit upon.
When she arrived in New York, Kusama realised that she had to market herself, so she reclined nude on beds of phalluses for photographers - but hers wasn't the usual kind of self-promotion. Her relentless work was replacing the self she could not control, which tortured her with nameless dreads and hallucinations, with a new self. So, whenever her work was photographed, she had to be photographed with it. The more pious members of the art-loving public found this activity suspect, and doubted her sincerity.
Kusama left New York in 1973 for Japan, where she was treated in hospital for her mental illness. Those of us who, in the 1960s, suspected her of being opportunistic and derivative now have to register the fact that she has worked obsessively on the same themes ever since. Her work has been co-opted for all the isms and styles of the century, but it belongs to none of them. Kusama's practice is beyond theory.