Hallucinations of Polka Dots: The Work of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama Louis Vuitton Show © JournalDesVitrines.com with CCLicense

Yayoi Kusama Louis Vuitton Show, Paris 2012
© JournalDesVitrines.com with CCLicense

Yayoi Kusama is a visionary who inspired and contributed to the emerging avant-garde movements of pop art and minimalism in the 1950s and 60s and continues to produce unusual and provocative art at the age of 84. Her art spans a wide variety of media, including environmental installations, performance art, sculpture, painting, film and fashion design, as well as the writing of novels and poetry. The polka dot is one of her signature symbols.

Pumpkin, Seto Inland Sea, 1994 image © Wendy Tanner with CCLicense

Pumpkin, Seto Inland Sea, 1994
image © Wendy Tanner with CCLicense

…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. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.

Infinity Mirror Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life, Tate Modern image © Loz Pycock with CCLicense

Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, Tate Modern
image © Loz Pycock with CCLicense

Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, Kusama was raised in the conservative household of a seedling merchant. Her mother repeatedly tried to break Kusama of her artistic aspirations, taking away her supplies and destroying her creations, beating her, and verbally abusing her. She was told that she would stop this nonsense and marry a rich man, bear his children and keep his house. To make matters unimaginably worse, her mother forced her to spy on her father’s relations with other women. Not only did this strategy not keep Kusama from making art, it created a terrible anxiousness and fear that would take its toll on the woman she became.

image © Yohei Yamashita with CCLicense

image © Yohei Yamashita with CCLicense

My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.

Obliteration Room image © sridgway with CCLicense

Obliteration Room
image © sridgway with CCLicense

In 1957, Kusama moved to New York, thinking that it would be easier to break with Japanese tradition and make a name for herself there. She worked tirelessly, painting for days at a stretch without a break, inducing hallucinations of polka dots which she incorporated into her art. Alas, even New York was unfriendly to female artists at that time and fame did not come easy. Kusama has written that she slept on a old door and rummaged through trash cans for fish heads to eat. Her friend Georgia O’Keefe tried to persuade her to move to Texas, but Kusama was determined to conquer New York. She developed a following among artists, influencing such famous men as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, with whom she exhibited. Popular success came in the 1960s with her Happenings and Body Festivals, a series of get togethers that involved guest participants, often nude, whom she painted with polka dots. Kusama, who was unsurprisingly uncomfortable with sexuality, found herself an unlikely icon of the sexual revolution.

image © Marshall Astor with CCLicense

image © Marshall Astor with CCLicense

Polka dots can’t stay alone. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots we become part of the unity of our environments.

image © C-monster with CCLicense

image © C-monster with CCLicense

Unfortunately, Kusama’s work ethic was obsessive. She returned to Japan in 1973, burnt-out and in need of re-invention. She tried becoming an art dealer, but Japanese culture was far more conservative than that of New York, and she found no respect. In 1977, after having a mental breakdown, Kusama admitted herself into Seiwa Hospital, a psychiatric facility. She has resided there for the past 36 years, continuing to produce art and explore a literary career as well. Her work ethic remains impressive and her ability to channel her own difficulties into creative pursuits is nothing short of miraculous, truly making art from her own limitations and neuroses. Here at synkroniciti we love people like Yayoi Kusama.

Video via KUSAMAdocumentary on YouTube.

Kusama’s art has been exhibited all over the world, including retrospectives of her work at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and Tate Modern.  In 2008 I pray with all of my love for tulips was sold for $5.1 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece made by a female artist. 

I pray with all of my love for tulips image © David Z. with CCLicense

I pray with all of my love for tulips
image © David Z. with CCLicense

I pray with all of my love for tulips image © Samuel Mark Thompson with CCLicense

I pray with all of my love for tulips
image © Samuel Mark Thompson with CCLicense

The Flowers that Bloom at Midnight image © Marshall Astor with CCLicense

The Flowers that Bloom at Midnight
image © Marshall Astor with CCLicense

5 thoughts on “Hallucinations of Polka Dots: The Work of Yayoi Kusama

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