The story of Artist Yayoi Kusama by Lillian Gray

Hi I'm artist Lillian Gray and I have someone 
you need to meet – Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.   Yayoi Kusama is absolutely dotty about dots, she 
is sometimes called the princess of polka dots.   She makes all kinds of art such as sculptures,   paintings, installation, clothing design and even 
performances and they are all covered in dots. She is a Japanese contemporary artist and one of 
the most important living artists today. People   queue for hours and hours to only see a glimpse 
of her work.

At her one exhibition you had to   queue for two hours only to spend 30 seconds in a 
Kusama infinity room. She is celebrated all around   the world and has exhibited internationally. Now 
what if I told you this art superstar lives in   a mental health hospital and she has been there 
for the last four decades, that's over 40 years. So why does she live in a hospital and what does she suffer from? depression? – anxiety? How did   she become so famous? And what's the story behind all these dots? And why is everybody so obsessed with it? Well, come with me and let me tell 
you about this amazing artist Yayoi Kusama! Kusama was born in 1929 in Japan. She was born into a wealthy family of merchants 
who managed extensive plant nurseries and a seed   farm. They grew a variety of flowers such as 
peonies and zinnias to sell all over Japan.   From a young age, Kusama was drawn to art and an avid drawer, she would carry her sketchbook with   her and sometimes sit amongst the flowers to draw them.

One day while doing so, the flowers   started crowding in on her, almost suffocating 
her and then they started speaking to her.   It was a terrifying experience that 
left Kusama trembling with fear. She said later "I had thought 
that only humans could speak   so I was so surprised that violets were using words. I was so terrified my legs began shaking".   This was the first of a series of disturbing 
hallucinations that haunted Kusama's childhood.  It could be said that these hallucinations were due to Kusama's unhappy childhood – Kusama grew   up in a deeply unhappy family. Her father was 
a womanizer that often cheated on her mother,   her mother was so jealous of all her father's 
girlfriends, she would often send little Kusama   to spy on her father's affairs. Kusama would run 
back to her mom telling her what she had seen   and her mother would lose it.

She would take out 
all her anger and rage on little Kusama – beating   her. This created a huge contempt in Kusama for romantic relationships and especially towards men.  She started hating love between couples and she 
also really became disgusted in the male body. Kusama's mother was also very strict. 
She wanted her daughters to follow the   traditional Japanese way of living, she wanted them to marry wealthy men and be housewives.  Her mother also did not support 
her drawing and painting.   She would often take her art away from her 
and try everything to stop her from drawing.   When she saw Kusama creating and wasting her 
time with art she would attack her, ripping   up her canvases and destroying it, and she also 
threw away all of Kusama's art supplies – what a   horrible mother – but Kusama kept on drawing. You 
see, Kusama's art was her way to escape from her   family, escape from her own mind, her anxiety, 
her depression, and her hallucinations.

She used   her art to make sense of the world around 
her, and all the trauma she was experiencing. One day she was absolutely fascinated by the 
smooth white stones covering the riverbed near   her home. She saw them as dots covering the earth 
and she ran home to draw it in her sketchbook.   Recording these hallucinations helped her to ease 
the shock and fear of these episodes, helped   her to develop some of her trademark ideas and patterns early on. It captured her fascination   with dots, as well as establishing a pumpkin as one 
of her key motifs. She started drawing pumpkins   when she was very little. The first pumpkin Kusama saw was with her grandfather. When she went to pick   it, it began speaking to her and it became the size of a man's head. She decided to go home and   paint what she saw and she won a prize for it, 
her first ever art prize at the age of eleven.   These pumpkins would be a golden thread throughout her career. 80 years later   and her large silver pumpkin sculptures sell for over 500 000 dollars. These hallucinations   of pumpkins inspired Kusama and her art.

So she 
kept on drawing what she saw and what she felt. One day she was so angry with her 
mother, she drew a portrait of her mom   obliterating into dots, self-destructing into little specks.   During World War II little Kusama was only 13 
years old. After the attack of Pearl Harbour,  Kusama was sent to work in a military factory. 
She had to sew parachutes for the Japanese army. World War II was busy escalating and she 
could often hear air raid alerts going off   and American B-29s flying overhead. The factory 
was blocked off in darkness to avoid the bombs.   Kusama remembers her adolescence 
as being closed in darkness.   Her childhood was greatly influenced by 
the events of the war, she started craving   personal and creative freedom. In the evenings 
she painted intricate flowers over and over. The local newspaper article about her first 
exhibition reported that she produced more than 70   watercolours a day – this is obsessive.

her parents agreed that she could study some form   of art but it had to be the traditional 
Japanese way of painting called Nihonga.   To Kusama, the style was super boring, stiff and 
tight, and she couldn't do whatever she wanted.   She wanted to create like the 
American abstract impressionists. One day while browsing a bookshop in her hometown Kusama found a book about the American female   artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

She found O'Keeffe's address in New Mexico, America and decided to write   her a letter. She was asking her for advice. How could she become a successful contemporary artist?   And Georgia O'Keeffe replied. At first, she was a bit puzzled. Why would a girl from rural Japan   want to become a famous American artist, and 
why would she want a career in contemporary   art? But O'Keeffe decided to reply and 
she convinced Kusama to come to America,   she replied, warning Kusama, saying in this country 
an artist has a hard time making a living,   you will just have to find 
your way as best as you can. In 1958 Kusama arrived in New York. She was 27 
years old. She had a few hundred dollars sewn   into the lining of a dress, and in her suitcase 
she had 60 silk kimonos and some drawings.   Her plan was simple – try to become a successful 
artist and in the meantime sell the kimonos so   she had enough money to live from.

She was so desperate during that time. She recalls how she   used to scavenge fish heads from the fishmonger's 
rubbish that she could boil to make soup   just to have something to eat. Kusama 
really struggled when she came to New York.   Finally, Kusama had a breakthrough in her art career. She painted these massive canvases   called the infinity nets. She used thick 
impasto paints to paint the net pattern   over and over. Look at the negative space 
between the net's thread – it looks like   dots.

These paintings were massive, up to 
30 feet wide, that's over 9 meters long.   These infinity nets as she called them were 
taken directly from her hallucinations. Now I want to take a moment and just explain 
these hallucinations a little bit better to you.   Have you guys ever stared at a crazy dotty pattern 
for a long time and when you close your eyes you   can still see that pattern? Have you ever laid 
outside in the sun, closed your eyes and then the   sunlight starts making these dots in your eyelids, almost red dots floating around? That's a little   bit like Kusama's hallucinations. Kusama tells of 
an incident she was sitting in her kitchen staring   at a tablecloth filled with little red flowers. She stared at it for a long time and when she closed   her eyes and looked up she could see this pattern 
on the ceiling, on her body, everywhere – and it   started feeling like it was consuming her, like 
her body was dissolving into these tiny, tiny   dots. This vision really really scared Kusama, she started fearing for her life and ran up the   stairs. the whole world started falling apart and
she fell down the stairs spraining her ankle.

Another aspect of her work I would like to explain comes from a lift. Have you ever   entered an elevator with mirrors on both sides? Your reflection starts reflecting itself, repeating   your image over and over until infinity. Well, 
this inspired Kusama. She felt this was a strong   visual way to show people how patterns repeat in her hallucinations. She started creating infinity   rooms, and in these rooms, she used mirrors to repeat dots of light over and over. Another aspect   of Kusama's work I'd like to discuss with you and explain, is her development of soft sculpture.   All the childhood trauma of spying on her father's 
affairs really gave her her disgust and a contempt   for the male body. Kusama transformed all this 
anxiety towards the male body into soft sculptures,   developing these tentacles that she sewed out 
of material and stuffed with inners that almost   feels like it's going to grab you. Looking 
at these objects really gives us a sense of   unease and it really evokes in us that feeling 
of anxiety that Kusama must have experienced.

Now that you understand a little bit 
more about Kusama's hallucinations,   let's get back to the story. The 1960s art scene in New 
York was a really fun time.   It is the time of Pop Art, popular art and known 
for artists such as Andy Warhol, Peter Blake,   Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and 
Yoko Ono. It's usually fun, bright, and playful.   Now when we look back at the 1960s and read about pop art we don't really read about Kusama.

Why is   that? It almost seems like she was written out of the history. A lot of Kusama's original ideas were   appropriated by the men around her, which they then passed off as their own ideas.    Oldenburg seems to have adopted Kusama's soft sculptures, and Andy Warhol her repetitive wallpaper prints. Many male artists copied Kusama's creativity, which made the men famous but not Kusama.   Therefore Kusama couldn't really live off her art, 
she wasn't financially paid what was due to her. This really really upset Kusama and she was hospitalized for overworking, trying to just work   harder and harder to become known as an artist, 
and O'Keeffe convinced her own art dealer to   purchase several of Kusama's artworks just so Kusama could survive with a little bit of money.  This frustration became so extreme 
that Kusama attempted suicide.   Kusama also did performance pieces; she dressed up in a Japanese national costume and she walked   through the rough neighbourhoods of New York, 
capturing everything with photos.

She was trying   to depict herself as an outsider in New York. 
In 1966 at the 33rd Venice biennial, Kusama did   something crazy, she kind of hijacked the entire occasion and set up a narcissist garden. Now for   those of you that don't know what narcissism is, 
it's actually based on a story in Greek mythology.   There was this god called Narcissus and he was 
so beautiful that he fell in love with his own   reflection in a river, he was so obsessed with 
himself that he eventually drowned and died.   So Kusama set up a thousand five hundred highly 
reflective shiny balls in a lake just outside the   Venice biennial.

When a person picked this up and 
looked at it, their face would infinitely multiply.  She sold the balls for two dollars each and 
put up a sign saying 'Your narcissism for sale'. This artwork plays with the idea of the obsession we have with ourselves and our image, and in a way   it was foreshadowing the crazy selfie culture that was to come. The biennial authorities stopped the   performance, objecting, saying to Kusama 'you cannot sell art like it is hot dogs or ice cream cones.

1967 in America brought a social phenomenon known as the summer of love. It was hippie culture,   people were anti-government, anti-establishment. 
All they wanted was peace and love,   and to live in harmony, and these massive 
parties happened all over America,   celebrating this culture. Kusama 
positioned herself as a high priestess   of flower power and she started 
painting the partygoers in polka dots. Later she expanded this into some performance 
art, staging a protest opposite the New York   stock exchange, and on the steps of the Statue of 
Liberty against Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war. When this era came to an end Kusama became somewhat of an outcast in New York. She decided   to return to Japan. Back in her home country, 
and surrounded by her culture, her hallucinations   and panic attacks of her adolescence returned with full force. She was hospitalized several   times. She began manically writing visceral 
surrealistic novels, short stories, poetry,   and an autobiography.

In march 1977 Kusama admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital.   For a lot of people admitting themselves to a hospital might have seemed like the end of the   road, the end of their hopes and their dreams, but 
for Kusama, it was a new start – being in hospital   really helped her to manage her 
hallucinations, her mania and her anxiety.   It helped her to no longer be 
concerned with things of survival   like food and washing, to have more 
time to focus on her creativity. The hospital offered art therapy courses and Kusama immediately signed up and never left.   Kusama is often quoted as saying "if it were not for art I would have killed myself a long time ago"   Kusama's painting style started changing into high coloured, massive acrylic canvases and amped up   on scale and pattern.

When Kusama left New York, she was practically a forgotten artist,   until much much later in the 1990s when a 
number of retrospective exhibitions revived   international interest in this artist. We have 
to wonder why such a talented artist like Kusama   seemed to almost disappear off the face of the 
earth and then catapult into world fame and   popular demand after the 1990s? Well the answer 
to that question lies in the age of the selfie   and instagramable nature of artwork – we 
became more and more obsessed with taking   images of ourselves and Kusama's artwork 
just makes for the most amazing selfies. She creates this captivating environment of 
dots that she creates with little LED lights,   reflecting into mirrors. The pinpricks of the light in the dark room reflects endlessly in the mirrors,   making you feel like you are in an apparently endless space, the dots around you engulf you.   It's very hard to tell where does the room end and 
where does the room begin, it feels like infinity.   Even though the smartphone-friendly nature of her 
work is clearly part of the massive attraction,   it does lead to a deeper 
understanding of Kusama's life.   Most visitors are shocked to realize 
that she lives in a psychiatric hospital.  Once they hear of Kusama's struggles with 
her mental health, they feel inspired – some   can identify with that and they feel 
encouraged to face their own traumas.

She also makes other playful rooms, like 
once she filled an entire room with pumpkins,   and the pumpkins have become a very strong symbol in Kusama's work, almost becoming an   alter ego to her, self-portrait of herself as a young child. In her ninth decade, Kusama has   continued to work as an artist. She has remained 
innovative and a multi-disciplinary artist,   experimenting with fashion, major large 
canvases, sculpture, installations, performances   and lately even technology design. Just to 
give you an idea of the demand of Kusama's work…   her pumpkin room called 'all the eternal love that 
I have' was filled with more than 600 pumpkins.   It was the museum's most popular attraction ever. Kusama's infinity mirror exhibitions   became a sensation amongst art 
critics as well as social media.   Museum visitors shared more than 34 000 images of the exhibition on their Instagram accounts   and social media posts, using the hashtag 'infinite Kusama' garnered more than 350 million impressions.

Way back when Kusama was still living in New York, she established Kusama fashion company, and she   began selling avant-garde fashion in the Kusama corner at Bloomingdale's. Today she has got quite   a massive fashion empire and she has worked with famous brands such as Louis Vuitton and Lancôme. A Japanese mobile communication giant 
has also commissioned Kusama to design   a cell phone. She designed a dog-shaped phone 
called 'my doggy ring ring", a handbag for space   travel which was a pink dotted phone 
in the accompanying dog-shaped holder. Lancôme has also partnered with Kusama to design a six limited-edition lip gloss range. In that   same year Kusama also worked with Marc Jacobs on a new line for Louis Vuitton products.   To date, Kusama has also completed several major outdoor sculptural commissions, mostly in the form   of brightly-hued monstrous plants and flowers for public and private institutions. In the past   five years more than five million people have 
visited Kusama's exhibitions around the world.   They queue for hours to see a 91 year 
old Japanese artist, who for the past   41 years has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric 

As the number of visitors increases to   her exhibitions, the amount of time visitors 
can spend in her infinity rooms goes down.  A gallery in New York restricted 
time slots to 45 seconds,   while a museum in Washington DC only allows 
people 30 seconds with Kusama's artwork. Since then Kusama has opened her own five-story gallery in Tokyo. The Broad museum in Los Angeles   recently sold 90 000 25-dollar tickets in 
one afternoon when they opened their Kusama   exhibition.

Kusama is an award-winning artist. She has won so many awards but, just to highlight a few,   she is the winner of the National Lifetime 
Achievement award of the Order of the Rising Sun.   Kusama also became the first Japanese woman 
to receive the Premium Imperial – one of   Japan's highest honours for internationally 
recognized artists. In 2014 Kusama was ranked   as the most popular artist of the year after 
a record-breaking number of visitors flooded   her Latin American tour. 'Infinite obsession' 
received more than 8 500 visitors each day in   Buenos Aires. In the world's art market Kusama's art has performed really strong at art auctions. Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction when one of her former signatory   infinity net series sold for 7.1 million dollars 
at a 2014 Christine auction. Kusama is also often   referenced in popular culture, many songs have 
been written about her, and artists like Yoko Ono   often cites Kusama as her inspiration. Many 
books have also been written about Kusama   and documentaries have been made. When asked 
about her worldwide fame Kusama is quite humble,   she said that "long ago I decided that all I 
could do was express my thoughts through my art   and that I would continue to do so until the 
day I died even if no one ever saw my work.

Today I will never forget that my artworks have 
moved millions of people all around the world". Kusama has achieved the rare double of serious 
critical attention and immense popularity.   As a child she said she always wanted Kusama to 
be everywhere – the internet, with social media has   granted Kusama that wish in a way she could not 
have imagined. What an incredible journey for a   little girl sitting frightened amongst flowers 
in anxiety and depression. Now let's look at the characteristics of Kusama's 
artworks. We need to ask ourselves what did she   paint, where did she paint it, how did 
she paint it, and most importantly, why? The what.

What was Kusama's subject matter?   Kusama painted pumpkins, flowers and dots all from her childhood hallucinations. She is also known   for major soft sculptures which depict the 
anxiety her father's affairs created in her life. Where did Kusama create? Mostly in New York and Japan. To this day Kusama sleeps in the   psychiatric hospital each night and she works in 
her art studio across the road, six days a week.   She still makes her own clothes and 
she has very little interest in the   wealth that has come in her late life. 
She has a small team of assistants in a   studio and gallerists who look after her 
interest in New York, Tokyo and London.

The how. What was Kusama's art style?   Kusama is a multi-disciplinary artist but whatever 
she creates, she is known to cover it in dots.   She usually works in her studio sitting at a 
table with a massive canvas Flat in front of   her, not on an easel. She does no planning and she 
just starts creating from her hallucinations, with   different patterns pouring out onto the canvas, and she often says the canvas cannot keep up with her.   She says "I have been painting and drawing 
and writing from morning until night since   I was a child. When I arrive at my studio in 
the morning, I put on my work clothes and I   start to paint straight away. I work right up 
until dinner time and I never take a break.   I'm an insomniac, so when I cannot 
sleep I grab my sketchbook and I draw".

Now let's discuss the most important of all – 
the why. What is the purpose of Kusama's art and   what is the meaning behind all these dots? If we 
think about it on a deeper level we are surrounded   by dots: the sun is a dot, the moon is a dot, even 
the earth the planet that we live on is a dot.   What is remarkable to me is that the country that 
Kusama is from Japan, even the flag, is a dot.   Everything around us, our entire universe is 
made out of dots, molecules, atoms, dots   that are vibrating, dots that are infinite. 
We are all just a collection of dots.   Here is a quote from Kusama about the meaning 
of her art "our earth is only one polka dot   among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots 
are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature   and our bodies with polka dots we become 
a part of the unity of our environment"   And that's the story of the wonderful artist 
Yayoi Kusama!   I'm artist Lillian Gray and I hope you enjoyed this story.

I'm a lover of art history and I hope that you guys are inspired.   Let's social, meet me on Instagram or Facebook and remember to subscribe and like our channel! Until next time :).

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