A Peek Into Yayoi Kusama’s Life
Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Singapore invites us to go over to “discover 70 years of artistic obsession”. The choice of words could not have been more apt. Since her first discovery of art over 70 years ago, art has all been what she does.
The artist's obsession with art arose when she wanted to escape from her life's torments. Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama suffered both physical and mental abuse from her mother. She ended up having severe hallucinations since the age of 10, and her mental health has been weak since.
The interesting part is that majority of her artworks were derived from these hallucinations. It was during these moments that polka-dots appeared to her for the first time, and she started to use them in her creative pieces. She began to draw and paint when she was a child and by the age of 20, she had already produced several thousand pieces of artwork.
In 1957, Kusama left Japan to live in New York City, partly because she found the Japanese society too restrictive and servile for her. She wanted to join the avant-garde, an artistic movement that challenges the norms and pushes the boundaries in art, producing pieces sometimes quite inaccessible to the public. Using painting, photographs, short movies, sculptures, and even performances on the street, she expressed herself and her views, such as her opposition to the Vietnam War.
Some of her work from this period are displayed at her exhibition at National Gallery. These include photographs of naked bodies, which were very controversial at that time. My personal favourite is her work titled “Walking Piece”, completed in 1966, which features a series of photographs of herself in the streets of New York City. The photographs show dressed in a kimono and holding a grey umbrella topped with actual flowers. The pink kimono and vibrant flowers contrasted intensely with the monochrome buildings of the city. The stark contrast emphasises her individuality, yet offers a glimpse of loneliness. The objective of those photographs was to protest against the stereotypes that Asian women face in the United States.
The issue of individuality is central in her art. It is one of the point of the frequent use she makes of the polka-dots from her hallucinations. Indeed, she gives them two opposite meanings. On one hand, she uses them as a claim for individuality, as she does not want human-beings to be drawn in a vague mass of other vague human-beings. She does this by showing the consequences of diminished individuality. For this purpose, she used to cover human-shaped sculptures with dots, or even real people, including herself. The most powerful expression of this in the National Gallery was one of the first work of art of the exhibition. She used a replica of the famous sculpture Vénus de Milo, painted the whole of it in yellow, and covered it with black polka-dots. Then she placed it against a yellow background full of the same black dots, so that when you are in front of the installation, the Vénus barely differs from its background signalling the disappearance of individuality.
On the other hand, the dots are also related to self-obliteration. Self-obliteration is an important part of Kusama’s inner world. She used to stop eating and sleeping for days while working on her art pieces, which was a way for her to “obliterate” herself. Her art works symbolise the end of one’s identity and uniqueness as they become elements of the universe.
Ones of her most famous installations, the infinite rooms, take on their full meaning with this concept. The infinite rooms are rooms in which the walls are covered with mirrors and decorated with complex lighting installations, making the room look like an endless luminous ballet. Wherever you look, you see an infinite darkness with some dots of coloured light everywhere. You also see yourself, but you would actually look small and insignificant in the middle of the decoration. One would feel like just another spot on the universe, and that’s exactly what she intends to deliver.
Self-obliteration can also be interpreted as a form of escapism. After New York City, Kusama went back to Japan and voluntarily moved into a psychiatric hospital where she still lives in now, 40 years later. Doing art allows her to express what she experiences in her head to try to free herself from her hallucinations. Similar to other artists around the world, art is a mean for Kusama to cope with her mental illness. A few years ago, she decided to start a series of about 50 pieces of artworks. Towards completing it, she found herself unable to stop. The series has been continuing for years and might only stop at her death. While some may call this madness, it is a poetic and powerful illustration of her bond with art and how it keeps her identity.