The artist on how art provided an outlet for her during her dark days
Few creatives in the world can attest to the role of art in mental health like Japanese revolutionary Yayoi Kusama. In a 2016 interview, she told Dazed, “I had dark days and unfortunate times, but I overcame them with the power of art.”
Her work mirrors her mind, with each of her eccentric sculptures and ethereal paintings offering a reading of her psyche. The attributes Kusama is most well known for, such as infinity nets, recurring dots and protruding phallic objects, are in fact all markers of her soul: obsessive compulsions, fears of sex, desires for self-obliteration, and an overall love for artistic expression. Across her entire life, she has used art as a way to purge childhood trauma, hallucinations, and the oppression of being a marginalised artist. In turn, she has created some of the world's most psychological artworks.
Rather than being wholly consumed by her mental illness, Kusama uses it as a point of empowerment. Her bravery in the face of artistic and social oppression, and her ability to survive this and succeed with a mental illness dispels the art world’s keen lust for the romanticised tortured genius, proving one both can live and express their mental health. Her ability to turn to art as a form of therapy also highlights the power of mental release and shows how mental health doesn’t have to be battled alone.
In light of World Mental Health Day tomorrow, here are the artist's most prolific reflections on mental health.
“Accumulation is the result of my obsession and that philosophy is the main theme of my art. Accumulation means the stars in the universe don’t exist by themselves nor does the earth exist by itself. It is just like when I saw the flowers everywhere and when I chased them, I felt panicked and so overwhelmed that I wanted to eat them all.”
In her recently released documentary Kusama – Infinity, Kusama traces her artistic vision right back to a string of painful experiences as a child in war-time Japan that created within her a sense of self-obliteration. In the quote above, Kusama recalls a moment where it is believed she witnessed something traumatic in the fields of her family’s farm, and in turn, became suffocated by the sea of flowers around her as a psychological defence mechanism. In order to deal with the sense of self-obliteration elicited by trauma, Kusama turned to painting at the age of 10: a time when she always painted dots. From her childhood onwards, so much of Kusama’s work looks to recreate that moment of self-obliteration in the fields, which as viewers we can experience as a sense of losing our selfhood in the physical endlessness of Kusama’s patterns.
Other traumatic experiences that contributed to Kusama’s work stem from her life as a child and teen in prewar and wartime Japan. They include working as a teen in Japanese factories making parachutes for the war, as well as feeling the full impact of the disconnect between her parents and having a tumultuous relationship with her mother. When painting as a child, Kusama’s mother (dismayed at the idea of her daughter wanting to be a creative rather than following more traditional career paths for women in the 1930s), used to run up behind her and snatch her drawings. It is said that the panicked state in which Kusama produces her work, and the hysteria they elicit began as a defence mechanism against her mother: she began to work furiously fast as to not have her drawings snatched from her. Kusama’s use of repetition also lends itself to the freeing of her anxiety, as seen with her obsessive use of dots and nets which are patterns that have become synonymous with the artist.
“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”
Kusama’s feeling of self-obliteration manifested itself in the form of hallucinations. At the age of 10, Kusama recounts experiences vivid hallucinations where patterns in fabrics would consume her, just as flowers started to speak to her. As curator Alexandra Munroe states in her essay titled Obsession, Fantasy and Outrage: The Art of Yayoi Kusama (1989): “Kusama often describes how, as a child, she heard her own voice as a dog’s; how she saw and heard violets talking to each other in a field; and that once she felt a dark force beneath a pond ‘trying to lure (her) soul…and (she) almost drowned.’” Kusama’s inability to express her hallucinations to her family made her feel further isolated. “Because my mother was so vehemently against my becoming an artist”, Kusama explains in Infinity, “I became emotionally unstable and suffered a nervous breakdown. It was around this time, or in my later teens, that I began to receive psychiatric treatment.”
As always, painting became the only way Kusama could release what she was seeing in her mind, therefore asserting the importance of art as therapy from a young age. By translating hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease,” Kusama reflects. “Pacific Ocean” (1960) is one of the artist’s earliest paintings in direct relation to her hallucinations. In 1958, Kusama set off to New York to start a new life as an emerging artist with dollar bills sewn into her kimono. On the plane, she recalls looking out the window and seeing ever-expanding nets on the ocean, which she turned into the infinity of sky blue nets in “Pacific Ocean”.
“By doing Freudian analysis, I could analyse my psychological problems. The feelings behind my works are subconscious and psychosomatic. My work is based on developing my psychological problems into art.”
Born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Japan, Kusama was born to prosperous, conservative parents in a loveless marriage, Kaman and Shigeru Kusama. By marrying a woman whose family was more successful than his, Kusama’s father was forced to take his wife’s surname, as dictated by Japanese culture at the time. It is believed that this made him feel emasculated, and he aimed to reassert his masculinity through a string of affairs. Kusama’s mother forced the artist to spy on her father, and seeing him fraternising with other women is said to have had a huge impact on Kusama’s mental state, later translated into psychosomatic works. “My father had lots of lovers and I had to spy on him for my mother,” Kusama states in a 2012 interview with Time Out. “Because my mother was very angry it made even the idea of sex very traumatic for me. My work... is always about overcoming that bad experience.”
Kusama claims to have never had any interest in sex – an asexuality she attributes to her childhood. While living in New York in 1962, she began to create work with mini soft sculptures whose phallic design is said to represent her sexual anxieties. Her “Accumulations” series (1962), for example, features a set of domestic objects covered in phallic protrusions, such as “Accumulation 1”, which suffocates an armchair with so many phallic sculptures, it appears like a bed of lifeless white coral. Overlaying domestic objects with references to male genitalia was also a statement of overt feminism, as phallic objects dominate the lingering domestic conservatism of 1950s America. “Her ambition for supremacy over men and over sexuality is relentlessly expressed in her repetitive and aggregate use of the phallus form,” Munroe pens in Obsession, Fantasy and Outrage, “which can be interpreted as an aggressive will and fantasy to defy oppressive male power by possessing it symbolically herself.”
Three years later, Kusama made her first installation using mirrors, titled “Infinity Mirror Room: Phalli’s Field” (1965). For the piece, Kusama filled a mirrored room with hundreds of white and red phallic soft sculptures whose reflection in the mirrors swallowed viewers in a sea of phallic objects. “Through art, her violent possession and control over not one but thousands of penises represent perhaps a victory, the freedom from subjugation, from dependency and the glorious right to dominate back,” states Munroe.
”I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
Kusama’s trajectory as an artist has always been in direct lineage with her mental health – when her career ebbed and flowed, so did her mind. After President Richard Nixon’s reign further oppressed marginalised artists in 1970s America, Kusama’s slowly rising success was diminished by a male-dominated artworld whose machismo was worsened by politics. This forced Kusama to return back to Japan, where the conservatism of the art world and the isolation she felt from her family pushed the artist into deep depression. After attempting to commit suicide in 1974, Kusama found a hospital which provided art therapy and admitted herself in 1975. In this sense, art was Kusama’s saviour.
When first admitted, the artist turned to collage as her main mode of expression, and here she made some of her most well-known collage works whose intricate symbolism offer a psychosomatic reading of Kusama’s mind. “Soul Going Back to Its Home” (1975) is a key reflection of this. The Joseph Cornell tribute piece features images of animals overlayed on an image that shows a troupe of birds flying to the heavens at sunset. The work conjures a deep sense of peace that shows an artist searching for mental liberation as she grapples with the grief. In March 1977, Kusama became a permanent resident there, and she bought a studio nearby. She still lives and works at both spaces today.
“I hope that the power of art can make the world more peaceful.”
Towards the end of the recently released documentary, Kusama – Infinity, Kusama reflects on her desires for art to be a force of peace in the world. If this is the gas that fuels her vision, it's no surprise that her work has always brought peace to the world in powerful ways. We can only imagine the terrifying state hallucinating at a young age would have been for a 10-year-old, but the way in which Kusama was able to harness her experiences and project them through her art not only bought her solace from a world of cruel judgement, but it created a symbol for how art is a vehicle for eradicating negative stigmas around mental health. Kusama’s unabashed artistic expression also artist bought the artist her own inner peace. In January this year, over 75,000 people attended Kusama’s show Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at New York’s David Zwirner gallery. This means that 75,000 people engaged openly, and in unity, with raw works on mental health, ultimately igniting conversations that progress the openness of mental health.
“Among the waves of people I have managed to survive this long life,” reflects Kusama in Infinity. “How many times did I think about putting a knife to my neck seeking death, I collected my thoughts and got up again. I wish for life’s bright sunshine. I want to live forever.”