Still in the spirit of honoring and recognizing women’s contributions to society, we celebrate the life and art of Yayoi Kusama, a prominent artist who has made significant contributions to the contemporary art scene.
Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at M+, which began in November 2022 as part of the museum’s first-anniversary celebration, drew attention from fans of her art and visual art enthusiasts. With a career spanning over seven decades, Kusama has become an iconic figure in the art world, and her influence extends beyond the realm of art and into the fast-paced world of fashion.
In January 2023, when Louis Vuitton released their first drop of the collaboration with Yayoi Kusama, the launch created visual waves in their critical stores worldwide. From a giant inflatable replica of Kusama peering over the roof of their Champs-Élysées store, her signature polka-dots that sweep the iconic Harrods of London to life-like animatronics of Kusama painting in the window of the stores, one can’t help but to be amazed of the sheer magnitude of these extreme eye-catching works of art.
Kusama is no stranger to sold-out shows across the globe. With her patterned environment and immersive mirror rooms, many have visited museums and galleries daily to be immersed in her works and mind. Her year-long show at London’s Tate Modern sold out in minutes, and when it was announced to be extended for another year, it instantly sold out again. Meanwhile, the Broad Museum sold 90,000 tickets for its Kusama exhibition in one afternoon in 2018. The sheer joy and appreciation that her audiences have given her have contributed to her blockbuster status.
From hurting to giving
To reach such stardom and longevity in her career, Kusama’s practice was rooted in many fragments of dark memories. From childhood, Kusama experienced psychological issues and spent her life trying to cope with her hallucinations and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Growing up in prewar and wartime Japan, Kusama has a turbulent relationship with her mother. Art was her defense mechanism during this extreme time of discomfort.
Her use of repetition, which is dominant in many of her works, was a method for her to free herself from anxiety. The duality that life has given her, these darker days has allowed her to create and move forward, with her obsessive use of dots and nets, to become a trademark for her as an artist. For much of her notable writing, she used them as a form of therapy and utilized them to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health.
“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.”
From an art-historical perspective, many have agreed that Kusama can be viewed as a pioneer of various movements: Pop, Minimalism, environmental/installation art, performance, and immersive art. Many of her works were made during times of uncertainty, both in her life and in society. From the dark days of the Pacific War (1942-1945) to how she was living and working in New York at the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Kusama produced works that have been impactful to this day.
To heal and to be still
With the pandemic damaging physical and mental health, Kusama’s practice brings awareness to demonstrate how practicing art is a form of healing. Art, as a form of therapy, has been encouraged and supported by both the art community and psychologists. During the peak of the pandemic, the internet and social media act as mediators of everyday life. Kusuma voiced her thoughts:
“Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love, and I hope to fulfill that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To Covid-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.”
Her statement was accompanied by her visual masterpiece When Life Boundlessly Flares Up to the Universe (2014). For her, practicing art and using imagination with drawings and colors would support us in overcoming the looming effect that a worldwide pandemic can be so harmful to society.
In 2021, many art institutions around the world displayed Kusama’s works. From "Kusama’s: Cosmic Nature" in New York Botanical Garden, featuring iterations of such historical works as Narcissus Garden (originally 1996) and Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (originally 2000) as well as new sculptures to the first large retrospective of her works held in the first time in Germany, organized by the Gropius Bau in Berlin, the world has captured the spirit of how Kusama’s impactful visuals were the right medicine to support public spaces, healing wounds that Covid has caused to many. Kusama and her relentless fight with her rollercoaster life path are admired and respected.