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.
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 :).