Why Yayoi Kusama Matters Now More Than Ever #InfiniteKusama | ARTiculations

She was named by Time magazine in 2016 as
one of the most influential people in the world. Her artworks often go for record breaking,
multi-million dollar prices at auction. And her exhibitions have drawn unprecedentedly
large crowds resulting in insanely long lines and internet breaking ticket sales. Her name
is Yayoi Kusama and you may be wondering what’s the big deal with her? Kusama is probably best known for her sculptural
works and immersive installations but is also a prolific painter, performance artist, fashion
designer, experimental filmmaker, poet and novelist Her enormous body of work has had
profound influences in not only the contemporary art world, but also on a deeper level of social,
political and philosophical thinking.

One consistent motif in Kusama’s works is
the continuous explorations of polka dots from organic biomorphic forms, to large
scale woven patterns, to endless shimmering lights to brightly coloured dots on sculptures,
installations, and human bodies. Another related idea of hers is the consistent examination of infinity and the polka dot motif actually represents this on both micro and macro levels. Infinities can be inconceivably large or inconceivably small. So while Kusama’s Infinity Rooms
can evoke ideas of the grand, infinite universe, her dotted paintings and replicating patterns
also allude to microscopic cells and exploding atomic particles. Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan.
Although she studied traditional Japanese painting during her early years in art school,
she was more interested in the avant-garde.

Although her style did not appeal to the mainstream
Japanese community at the time, her obsessive psychological expressions caught the interest
of some prominent Japanese scholars and art critics. By 1954 she had exhibited in various
solo shows around the country as well as caught the attention of some western collectors. In 1955 she also blindly wrote to American
artists Kenneth Callahan and Georgia O'Keefe to seek advice. Both actually responded to
her, enthusiastically supporting her work and encouraging her to move to the US. She
would eventually end up in New York in 1958. Late 1950s America was a time when many artists
were reacting against the movement of abstract expressionism. Many became less interested
in gestural brushstrokes and more interested in flat, repetitive compositions that are
self referential and internally contemplative. This resulted in enormous interest in Kusama’s
signature Infinity Nets series.

However, although her works appealed to minimalists, Kusama
didn’t necessarily conform to their philosophies. Nevertheless, her works during this period
significantly influenced many modernists’ transition from abstract expressionism to
minimalism. In the early 1960s, against the backdrop of
a psychedelic, politically charged era of civil rights movements and sexual liberation,
Kusama began a series of soft phallic sculptures that she attached all over walls, floors,
furniture and everyday objects. Known as the Accumulations series – she once again employed
her signature techniques of methodical repetition. Accumulations have also been compared to similar
soft sculptures produced by American artist Claes Oldenburg, and Kusama’s practice of
repetition would influence pop artists like Andy Warhol who was deeply interested in the
ideas of multiplicity and commercial proliferation.

But once again, although her works shared
similar ideas with pop artists, Kusama’s interests was not exactly in line with their
ideologies. Rather than focusing on pop cultural imagery and mass consumption, she was more
interested in creating immersive experiences that blurred the boundaries between architecture
and art. By the 1965, Kusama had incorporated a more
efficient way of visually expressing exponential repetition – by using mirrors. This resulted
in her first “Infinity Room” – Phalli’s Field A mirrored room that not only simulated
the experience of infinity, but also made the artwork into a participatory experience
for the viewer. How you are reflected within the mirrors, the way you occupy the space
and position your body inevitably makes you a part of the artwork. Kusama continued to produce sexual charged
works throughout the 1960s – such as staging numerous controversial public performances.
Like many contemporary artists, Kusama was aware of the limitations of traditional institutions,
and she was interested in reaching audiences beyond the art galleries.

These performances
blurred the lines between high and low art and was a significant step in democratizing
the access of art for the masses. At the 1966 Venice Biennale, Although Kusama
was not an official exhibitor, she was invited by Italian artist Lucio Fontana to exhibit
on the lawn outside the Italian Pavillon. Her work was titled Narcissus Garden and composed
of 1,500 mirrored balls. During the Biennale, Kusama placed a sign in front saying “Your
Narcissism for Sale” and sold each mirrored ball to passing visitors for $2 each. The
Biennale officials quickly caught onto this and removed her from doing so. But through
this act, Kusama drew attention to the often uncomfortable realities of commercialization
and commodification of art. In the age social media the exploration of narcissism is also
evermore relevant. On the distorted mirrored ball is the viewer’s own reflection, which
is often snapped by gallery visitors and uploaded to places like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. In later years, Kusama would continue to bring
her art out into the world, as well as bring visitors into immersive environments by inviting
them to become a part of the artwork.

The “Obliteration Room” has been a traveling
installation since 2002, where it starts off as a completely white room filled with white
domestic furniture. Visitors are given a pad of colourful circular stickers to place anywhere in the room. As each exhibition goes on The room is transformed into another explosion
of brightly coloured polka dots. In the early 2000s Kusama made a departure
from her earlier vivid and sculptural infinity rooms and began creating dimly lit rooms activated
by lights and mirrors. These environments often evoke visitors to contemplate the experience on an existential, cosmological level. Many feel these boundless galactic spaces give
them an "out of body experience,” as if your consciousness has been transported to
a galaxy millions of light years away. I find it fascinating that, although Kusama has faced many hardship and challenges throughout her life contrarily – her art seem to bring an incredibly positive, vibrant and animated life force She has also maintained a consistent
ideological motif throughout her entire career yet her visual language is always transforming
and adapting to new ideas.

She’s been a key influencer of many significant art movements, yet she has always had a uniquely distinctive style that defies categorization. And in this post-Internet age where the distinction of virtual and physical life is increasingly blurred I’d argue that her ideas are more relevant today than they’ve ever been. With the ceaseless
snapshots of Infinity rooms shared across social platforms, each viewer is adding to the never-ending performance of Kusama’s works while also continuing her pursuit of democratizing the experience of art beyond the art gallery. If you are watching this video in 2018, and
you live in or around Toronto, Cleveland or Atlanta, or you can get yourself to one of
these places – then you have a chance to see a spectacular survey exhibition called Infinity
Mirrors. I’ll put the links in the description below on where where you can find out more
information about those shows. But, be warned, tickets sell out very fast and be prepared
to wait in some very long lines but I think it's worth it! Good luck and send me your
#InfiniteKusama pictures.

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