As her dreamy Self-Obliteration film gets unearthed at the Barbican’s Station to Station this month, we revisit some of the Japanese icon’s most radical work
Taken from the Summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
Opening with sharp flashes of penis-like tentacles and polka dots, Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration is a dreamy 23-minute trip through some of the Japanese artist’s most radical work. Released in 1967, the film documents her notorious ‘polka dot happenings’, a disruptive series of immersive installations that took place around some of New York’s most conspicuous landmarks. The film follows the artist, who still works despite having lived voluntarily in a Tokyo mental facility for the last 38 years, as she spreads her trademark polka dots across trees, cats, rocks and the naked flesh of her free-spirited entourage.
Kusama’s ‘body festivals’ courted controversy throughout the late 1960s. Fuelled by feminism and sexual liberation, they would start as peaceful performances before quickly descending into orgiastic tangles of limbs and body paint. It was a vision of sexuality that distilled the essence of the free-love zeitgeist while offering a punchy rebuttal to the beloved branding of pop art. Polka dots became Kusama’s weapon against America’s growing culture of self-serving individuality – a way of making everything the same, and becoming one with the universe. Or, in other words, ‘self-obliterating’.
For the Barbican’s Station to Station festival this June, American multimedia artist Doug Aitken has dusted off the original Self-Obliteration film, using it as an integral part of his own happening. “Kusama is such a visionary,” he notes. “The works are restless and their experimentation ranges from architectural environments to installations and paintings. In any medium, she is comfortable.” For the project, Aitken wants to celebrate the spontaneity of Kusama’s creative approach. “I love the way her art flows and evolves. She creates a connection with reality that is so important. You feel the urgency of life in her art.”
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration will be screening regularly as part of the Barbican’s Station to Station festival, curated by Doug Aitken, June 26–July 27