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Yayoi Kusama, an artist with eternal obsessions

Text and photographs by Monserrat Loyde*

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The eternity of eternal eternity

“I face the fear of death every day,

with all my energy I overcome it and calm down

and I find it in my passion for art.

The feeling of having been born in this world

regenerated my life with a new storm of creation.

The deep mystic whisperings of Earth

save my miserable life, prone to suicide

and squander my fear and longing for death

and they have always awaken me to the glorious radiance of life.”

The excerpts, written by Yayoi Kusama, opened the last great exhibition of her art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (NMAO) in Osaka in 2012, which was later part of the great retrospective that has been exhibited in various museums of the world for the past two years, including the Museo Tamayo for the first time, starting September 22, 2014 in Mexico City.

Most of what has been written about Yayoi Kusama’s work begins with the story of the 10 year old girl who found artistic inspiration on the hallucinations that haunted her and which, in turn, were the reason to escape the surroundings that oppressed her. Since then, she draws polka dots, nets and flowers.

Kusama is one of the most prolific and long-lived contemporary artists, precursor of the avant-garde movement in Japan. Contemporary of Yoko Ono, she left Japan before the latter to move to New York, with Georgia O’Keeffe as her godmother at the end of 1950, and in the 1960s made a career next to artists such as Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.

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In 2004, I saw her dots for the first time in the hallucinating exhibition Kusamatrix, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. I remember that, at the opening, as we walked from one hall to the other looking at dots, she too sat, dressed as a dot on a bench full of dots, blending in completely with one of her dot installations, and she very likely saw us walk by as dots.

Yayoi Kusama, painter, sculptor, designer, novelist and poet, is one of the avant-gardesque artists “discovered by the West”, according to Ryuichi Sakamoto in a presentation of the catalogue of her exhibition, is a commercial and artistic phenomenon in Japan.

At the end of the 1950s, she moved to New York and with the support of Georgia O’Keefe she was part of various artistic movements like the Abstract Expressionism and Op Art. In 1978, she went back to Japan and wrote her first novel Manhattan Suicide Addict, based on her New York experience.

After suffering a crisis diagnosed as “obsessive compulsive disorder,” she voluntarily admitted herself into a psychiatric institution, where she currently lives. Temporary contact with the outside world takes her some time to get used to; her studio is not far from the hospital where she must return without fail to spend the night to awake again the next morning and paint.

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For over 70 years, Kusama (now 85) has created a connection between her world of obsession and sickness and the outside world, which she confesses she has wanted to abandon infinite times. She draws endless patterns of dots and colors in nets “to survive and escape the fears and suicidal thoughts”, words she repeats over and over when interviewed. But it is an obsession that, at the same time, oxygenates her artistic expression and her being.

Kusama’s artwork tends to go hand in hand with some of her free poems. In the last years, she has worked with monochromatic and colored acrylics on canvas, some self portraits, portraits of foreign women (one of them could be a memory of Georgia O’Keeffe), and enormous tridimensional pieces that can be found in many places in and outside Japan, like the famous yellow or red pumpkin with black dots, which she created in 1994 and has reproduced obsessively since.

There is a series that I particularly like because it contrasts with the color that tends to characterize her work. It’s the “Love Forever” series. They are 50 images of simple black lines on white, creating a chain of repetitions that flow between humor, surprise, despair, anxiety, happiness and, of course, love. The images are wrapped in an excerpt of a poem:

This Mystery

“One after the other, the rainy days, the beautiful days, the snowy days, flow out of my imagination.

Why do these days continue uninterruptedly in my life?

I am so lost now, how to answer this mystery.

The mountains are getting higher and the skies are getting bluer.

I am never alone in this universe.

My search for art goes beyond me, it encloses the entire Earth and the clouds.

Today, it is also a calm day.

If my love burns, I want to hug everyone’s love.

Love for ever…”

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From her constant struggle to understand the world, Kusama obsessively sees with the same patter, we see:

“Lovers,” infinite lines of profile without eyes but with nose and mouth, where a minute girl with braids stands out, pulling a dog by a leash.

“The Crowd,” eyes that could also be seeds or cells that spill over and stack up.

“A Dream I Dream Yesterday,” profiles, eyes and shoes with no pair, that get lost in endless black holes that invite to abysm.

“Sprouting,” from what seems to be the center of a flower, a school hat springs out, legs on a person’s head, a cup of coffee, smiley lips, a necklace, an umbrella and butterflies that are also eyes.

“Birth, Aging, Sickness and Death,” Buddhist precepts of the cycle of life where her traces sometimes flow oppressively, others are looser but always among visions of light and darkness.

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She has another series of some 100 paintings that she has done over the last four years. She entitles it “My Eternal Soul.” They are made with intense reds, blues, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks, silvers and gold that contrast with her monochromatic black and white series.

This series filters a movement of reincarnation that leads to all of Yayoi Kusama’s emotional states: sadness, happiness, joy, desperation, abandonment, grief, death, silence, noise, hope, life, compassion. The most disturbing of the series is entitled “Pain of Love Lost, and a Wish to Commit Suicide,” images in yellow, black and red. The closest thing to a nightmare: the blackness of amorphous holes stained with what seems to be blood that drag you into a precipice.

“My Self-Portrait Done When I Was Heartbroken,” a canvas where Yayoi Kusama paints herself in red and white. Her eyes, wide open with long eyelashes on an immaculately white face, seem to actually look out of a window with lots of light. The roots of her hair and mouth are countless and have minute eyes on red lines. The image doesn’t seem to portray sadness; on the contrary, it portrays tenderness.

“Human Life Comes to Nothing,” drawings of profiles, eyes, circles that seem to be viewed from a microscope and floating on a silver bottom, are the microcosms of the lucidity and resignation that Kusama portrays.

“Waiting for the Moon to Appear”, “Morning is Here”, “Beauty Remembered” “Waking up in a Quiet Morning”, “Stars”, among others, show this contemplation of changing nature that surrounds and eases her obsessions and mental obstructions.

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When you look at her tridimensional artwork, which tends to be colossal, it transports you to a world of giants where your smallness makes you immediately infantile. Some of these sculptures are white flowerpots with huge white tulips with red dots, one of them entitled “With all My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever.”

They’re actually intoxicated phanerogams that exhale hilarity and life and wink at her permanent obsession for eroticism and sexuality. Another sculpture, perhaps from the most famous series of all her work is “Great Gigantic Pumpkin,” which is also an object of her fixations.

Yayoi Kusama, an artist that is a tad naive for many, neopop for others, is an important piece of avant-garde for her collectors and contemporaries, and for a few others, she’s merely a business and commercial brand because of the amount of products and publicity she generates upon her and her artwork (in Japan, you find from socks, cookies, key chains, handkerchiefs, notebooks, even collaborations with Louis Vuitton or Coca Cola vending machines with her image).

But above all that, she is an artist that lives in solitude, enclosed in her world of fears that she hasn’t stopped recreating and fighting. “Until the devil is subdued, my work goes on because the devil is the enemy of art, and besides, he is a companion in the battle field,” she declares in interviews. Isolated from a common world that she lives through her memories and fears, her mental state of infinite obsession and eternal liberation is evident in all her work.

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*Monserrat Loyde lives in Kyoto, Japan. Internationalist. Writes for different media on politics, art, culture and Japanese society. She also does ceramics. She studies tea ceremony and ceramic restoration. Twitter: @lamonse

She has also published in Límulus on Japanese tea ceremony: http://limulus.mx/el-universo-del-camino-del-te-monserrat-loyde/?lang=en

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