As Yayoi Kusama exhibits her work at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, we give you a comprehensive 26-point guide to the Japanese polymath
Born in Matsumoto City, Japan in 1929, Yayoi Kusama scandalised Japan with her early work, before moving to New York in the late 1950s at the age of 27 where she gained popularity in the mid-1960s for her provocative, avant-garde work. A creative polymath whose skill-set spans the mediums of painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, performance, film, printmaking, installation and environmental art as well as literature and fashion, Kusama's work is expansive and immersive, with an unquantifiable reach.
Currently living and working in Tokyo, Kusama (now 87-years old) is the subject of a major international museum tour throughout northern Europe and the United States, with Yayoi Kusama: Sculptures, Paintings & Mirror Rooms, currently running at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery. Here, we give you a definitive 26-point guide to the prolific artist.
A IS FOR ACCUMULATION SCULPTURES
Originating in the 1960s, Kusama's ongoing Accumulations series features everyday objects, items of clothing, furniture, boats – even entire rooms – covered with hand-sewn phallic protrusions.
B IS FOR BODY
For Kusama, the body is a canvas. Used both as a surface and as a reference point, much of Kusama’s work is based on identity. Through the use of clothes, make-up, costumes, wigs, stereotypes and personas, Kusama both masquerades and promotes identity. Playing the role of both the subject and the object, she has often been photographed nude in the foreground of her work, for example, reclined on her “Accumulation No. 2” sculpture in front of one of her Infinity Net paintings in 1966.
C IS FOR “CHANDELIER OF GRIEF”
One of three mirror rooms on display at Victoria Miro’s Islington space, “Chandelier of Grief” is Kusama at her most theatrical and baroque. Entering through a sliding door, viewers find themselves within a mirrored space. At its centre hangs a chandelier contained inside a column made of a one-way mirror; its lights are choreographed to flicker in varying pulses and rhythms.
D IS FOR DOTTY
Commonly known as "the Polka-Dot Princess", Kusama is world-renowned for her dotty happenings. Originating in 1965, these public "happenings" took place on Brooklyn Bridge or on Times Square and saw Kusama order people to strip naked before painting their bodies. “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm," says Kusama. "Round, soft, colourful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity." Aside from the bodies of her free-spirited entourage, Kusama's trademark polka-dots have covered trees, cats, rocks, sculptures, phallic tentacles and entire rooms.
E IS FOR “MY ETERNAL SOUL”
Paintings from Kusama’s ongoing “My Eternal Soul” series abound with imagery in pulsating combinations of colour. While some paintings possess a sense of mortality, the series as a whole reveals an artist overflowing with ideas well into her ninth decade. “The My Eternal Soul paintings join all the philosophies of my art,” says Kusama. “They are an explosion of ideas and represent my preoccupation with infinity and the search for peace and love which has always been at the heart of my work. Through their vibrant colours, I feel my happiness; their strength and clarity flood me with energy.” First shown in Europe as part of Kusama’s 2012 Tate Modern retrospective, the series continues to evolve and has grown far in excess of the hundred works originally conceived by the artist.
F IS FOR FLOWERS
Having grown up within a family who ran a business cultivating plant seeds, Kusama spent her childhood surrounded by fields of flowers – a landscape that has provided much inspiration for her work from sketches to large-scale sculptures. It was, in fact, Kusama's drawings from a childhood sketchbook that transformed into her 1950s sculpture "Earth of Accumulation" along with "Flower Bud No.6".
G IS FOR GEORGIA O'KEEFFE
Kusama moved from Seattle to New York in 1958 following correspondence with influential artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Desperate to become part of the city's bubbling art scene, Kusama found O'Keefe's address at the American embassy and wrote a letter asking for her advice on how to break into the NY art world. O'Keefe's response, that it would be tough, didn't stop Kusama.
H IS FOR HALLUCINATIONS
Many of Kusama’s most memorable motifs – in particular, the polka dots that build her “Infinity Net” lattice work – are said to have been born from visual and auditory hallucinations from which she has reportedly suffered since childhood. The earliest recorded piece of Kusama's work that features them was a drawing done in 1939, at the age of ten, that sees a Japanese woman wearing a kimono covered in spots, who is believed to be her mother.
I IS FOR INFINITY
Kusama’s lifelong preoccupation with infinity can be witnessed in her mirror works as well as her classic “Infinity Net” paintings, which composed of repeated, looping brush marks across the canvas, suggest an endless lattice. Kusama first showed her white “Infinity Nets” in the late-1950s in New York, where they were heralded as forging a link between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. The most recent examples can be seen at Victoria Miro’s Islington gallery.
J IS FOR JOSEPH CORNELL
During her time in New York, Kusama had a decade-long relationship with the American artist Joseph Cornell. Cornell was believed to live with his overpowering mother and invalid brother and was too psychologically hamstrung to consummate.
K IS FOR KUSAMA
Kusama is a cultural phenomenon, achieving a fame that transcends the art world. Over the past 12 months, she has been selected as one of TIME Magazine’s World’s 100 Most Influential People. She was also recently named the world’s most popular artist by various news outlets, based on figures reported by The Art Newspaper for global museum attendance.
L IS FOR LOUIS VUITTON
In 2012 Kusama leant her pattern-focused eye to a ready-to wear Louis Vuitton collection, under the creative direction of Marc Jacobs. This was not Kusama’s first foray into fashion. In New York in 1968, she started the Kusama Fashion Company, selling her dresses and textiles in boutiques including a “complete Kusama corner” in Bloomingdales. When it comes to Kusama's own sense of style, if there's one thing she believes in, it's being unique. Often spotted wearing colourful yet classic outfits - think vivid sunglasses to match each of her dresses and, of course, polka-dots - she's never seen without her signature brightly coloured wigs.
M IS FOR MIRRORS
Kusama has been working with mirrors since 1963. Usually part of a complex installation, Kusama is renowned for lining purpose built rooms with mirrors and suspended neon coloured balls. A particularly notable mirrored installation is Kusama's "Narcissus Garden", first created in 1966 for the 33rd Venice Biennale, that saw hundreds of mirrored spheres form a "kinetic carpet". Always used to create the illusion of a never-ending space, light and space are reoccurring themes in Kusama's work. "Narcissus Garden" is permanently installed in Victoria Miro’s waterside garden.
N IS FOR NEW YORK
Oppressed by Japanese society, Kusama moved to the US in 1957, before relocating to New York in 1958. Often finding her work exhibited alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg in the early 60s, it was during this time that Kusama became associated with the pop art movement.
O IS FOR OBLITERATION
It was in early childhood that Kusama began to experience the terrifying hallucinations that left her “dazzled and dumbfounded” by repeating patterns that engulfed her field of vision, a process she referred to as “obliteration”. While in her work the artist expresses the obliteration of the self, Kusama has described how the process also helps her to obliterate her anxieties.
P IS FOR PUMPKIN
Currently running at the Victoria Miro Gallery’s Islington space, Kusama’s “All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins” sees a room entirely filled with glowing yellow and black pumpkins, that appear endless by way of mirrored reflections. This mirrored pumpkin room is the first created by Kusama since 1991 – the year she produced the iconic work that would represent her native at the 1993 Venice Art Biennale. The installation brings together many of the artist’s reoccurring obsessions – polka-dot patterns, squash plants and, of course, infinite space. "Pumpkins have been a great comfort to me since my childhood," says Kusama. "They speak to me of the joy of living. They are humble and amusing at the same time, and I have and always will celebrate them in my art."
Q IS FOR QUEUES
Wildly popular, Kusama exhibitions are famous for drawing crowds. And, since only one or two people are admitted to her infinity mirror rooms at a time, queues are an integral part of the experience. Thousands have waited patiently in line to experience the current Victoria Miro exhibition in London. Kusama's travelling retrospective "Infinite Obsession" is the exhibition that has attracted her biggest audience to date. Pulling in over two million visitors whilst travelling South America and causing Mexico's Museo Tamayo to stay open for 36-hours straight in order to accommodate fans. It totalled over three times the traffic that the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
R IS FOR RENAISSANCE WOMAN
Aside from her artwork and fashion design, Kusama can also boast an accomplished literary output including poetry, novels, including The Hustler's Grotto of Christopher Street (1983), and Aching Chandelier (1989), her autobiography, Infinity Net, and several issues of the magazine S&M Sniper which was produced in collaboration with famed Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki. Her film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967) won a number of international awards.
S IS FOR CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
Frustrated by traditional Japanese styles, Kusama became interested in European and American avant-garde art, staging several controversial solo exhibitions of her paintings in Matsumoto and Tokyo during the 1950s. Her strong feminist values and ideas challenged the notion of society at the time. Having also grown up during the Great Depression in Japan, a time in which the country’s population was oppressed by the military, much of Kusama’s work is an opposition to patriarchal dominated systems.
T IS FOR TOKYO
Having returned to Tokyo in 1973 and checking herself into a hospital for the mentally ill, Kusama eventually took up voluntary permanent residence at the institution, where she still resides today. Located a short distance from her studio in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Kusama famously said: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”
U IS FOR ULTIMATE SELFIE
Head to Kusama’s current exhibition at Victoria Miro’s Islington space (until July 30) and you’ll spot dozens of art-lovers queuing up to take a selfie in the three immersive mirror rooms on display – an immersive art space in which Kusama makes the viewer a participant.
V IS FOR VISIONARY
Having been making art since the age of ten and broken exhibition ticket sale records the world over, Kusama's audience pulling power isn't her only remarkable trait. To date, Christie's New York have sold a piece of Kusama's work for a grand total of $5.1 million – a record for any living female artist.
W IS FOR WHERE THE LIGHTS IN MY HEART GO
Kusama's most recent installation, "Where the Lights in My Heart Go", is currently on in the waterside garden of the Islington Victoria Miro gallery. Exploring the potential of natural illumination, the mirrored room is created from mirrors and polished stainless steel cubes that give the illusion of star constellations. The installation sits beside Kusama's aforementioned "Narcissus Garden", which is on permanent display at the gallery.
X IS FOR X-RATED REQUESTS
During the period in which Kusama was staging outlandish happenings, that often featured nudity and protested against the Vietnamese war, in public places in New York, she also wrote an open later to Richard Nixon offering to have "vigorous sex" with him if he stopped war.
Y IS FOR YAYOI
Meaning ‘March’ in Japanese, Yayoi, as well as being the artist’s first name, also refers to the month of Kusama’s birth (March 22, 1929).
Z IS FOR FREE-LOVE ZEITGEIST
If there's one thing that Kusama's work captured in the 60s, it was the essence of the free-love zeitgeist. Through her "body festivals" and work fuelled by feminism and sexual liberation, Kusama's vision of sexuality was radical, bold and entirely unapologetic. Kusama has remained ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of the rise of immersive and experiential art and the phenomenon of the artist as cultural celebrity.
Yayoi Kusama is at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 and Victoria Miro MAYFAIR, 14 St George St, London W1 until 30 July. A new book celebrating the artist's exhibition has just been published by Victoria Miro (Price £55). Yayoi Kusama has solo exhibitions at Moderna Museet, Stockholm (until 11 September), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (until 18 September), Matsumoto City Museum of Art, Matsumoto (until 10 October) and The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut (until 30 November). An exhibition of the artist's prints is on view at Ota Fine Arts, Singapore from 23 July to 10 September
Take a look at Kusama’s 2012 Tate Modern retrospective here