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Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, Portrait, 2014Photography © Noriko Takasugi

Yayoi Kusama: ‘I overcame dark days with the power of art’

As her new exhibition opens in London, the pioneering creative force describes why her painting will always be a form of protest

When arriving on foot at the Victoria Miro Gallery in east London, the city’s ever-multiplying skyscrapers and building sites en-route tell you to look up; inside, the gallery’s famously narrow staircase and multiple levels have a similar vertiginous effect. This summer, the gallery plays host to an artist who has only ever told us to look all the way around. And if you can’t see spots when you do, look harder.

Yayoi Kusama’s instinctively joyful and singular work has entranced the world ever since the young Kusama moved to the US from Japan in 1957. A trailblazing figure on New York’s underground art scene, she organised political protests, wild outdoor happenings and body-painting ‘orgies’ – a true radical who led the charge for immersive installation work. She’s collaborated with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, and Issey Miyake; perhaps less known is that she once ran her own fashion label, the Kusama Fashion Institute, whose constant flow of press releases and marketing parodies had a fiercely political bent that, revisited today, make the work of post-internet slashies seem weak. Her spot-covered paintings, from the early Infinity Net paintings to her current, ongoing series, My Eternal Soul, bring a universe of sprawling, endless dots and webbed shapes to flat canvas. Not forgetting those signature pumpkins: Kusama has created a brand-new pumpkin mirror room for the show at the Victoria Miro Gallery that has to be seen to be believed. Here and elsewhere, the Infinity Mirror Rooms provide the most powerful instances of the dual impulses of Kusama’s work, and of our own lives: to disappear, and to live forever.

Since 1977, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution in Japan. But in her current work, as she reveals here, her crosshairs remain aimed at the rest of the world and its failed politics. I’ve had many imaginary conversations with the artist, who is now 87, in my head. Here, over email, is an actual one.

I was surprised to read that your newest paintings, the My Eternal Soul series, are now among the largest of your entire career. You have also said of these paintings that you want to continue painting them even after you have died. What does the series mean to you?

Yayoi Kusama: Everyone asks me where my inspiration comes from, but I just pick up the paintbrush and the work just flows from me. Afterwards I give them poetic titles which are also filled with meaning for me: THE HEART THAT FLEW TO THE SKY, I WILL STILL GO ON LIVING, THE SCENT OF A FLOWER GARDEN, SHEDDING TEARS TO THE SEASON. The paintings join (together) all the philosophies of (my) art.

When you were in New York as a young woman you organised political protests and happenings, hosted body painting parties, and wrote political texts. What are your views on the role of art in effecting positive political change in the world?

Yayoi Kusama: The world today is in a terrible situation. My desire to use my art to protest against war and man’s inhumanity to man has never diminished. I am always trying to transmit through my work the message that we should all live life in peace and with humanitarian love.

Thanks to the internet and social media, some would say it is getting easier for young female artists not to align themselves with the establishment. What did your experiences in New York in the 1960s as a young artist teach you about negotiating the art-world patriarchy?

Yayoi Kusama: Although there were some difficulties, I have kept struggling. I also had dark days and unfortunate times but I overcame them with the power of art. People were touched by my art and they respected me, loved me and supported me. To challenge my philosophy and art was – and is still – everything in my life. I am determined to develop my way of life even further.

Your exhibitions have attracted a record-breaking number of visitors in recent years. Today, these visitors interact with your work in a whole new way – taking pictures on their phone inside the mirror rooms, for instance. How does it make you feel to know that people interact with your work via their own mediation, as well as physically?

Yayoi Kusama: In the past few years there have been many exhibitions of my work touring the world. I would like people to feel my creation and its message. Once they manage to feel it, I am reminded of the greatness of the hymn of being human and the mystery of it and that makes me very happy.

In your world of technicolour patterns, is there one colour you love more than any other?

Yayoi Kusama: I feel my happiness through the vibrant colours of my work, they (all) give me energy.

Yayoi Kusama: sculptures, paintings & mirror rooms is on at the Victoria Miro Gallery until July 30