Yayoi Kusama: Lost and found in art


Yayoi Kusama was just shy of 30 when she left her hometown of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture and headed to America to meet her hero, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

It was improbable, even quixotic, but Kusama soon developed an artistic style that endeared her to the New York City of the 1960s. Her obsessive paintings of repeated polka-dot and net patterns were well received in local galleries, and her frequent public “happenings” — many of which involved hippie assistants running round in the nude — made her a darling of the local media. There was even a stretch of time when Kusama is said to have garnered more press coverage than Pop Art’s poster boy himself, Andy Warhol.

But the public image of a cool and carefree female Asian artist contrasted sharply with reality.

Kusama’s polka-dot and net paintings were based on frightful hallucinations she had experienced during “a miserable childhood as an unwanted child born of unloving parents.”

While life in New York was a sort of escape — and Kusama painted furiously to keep the demons at bay — finally, her deteriorating mental health forced her to repatriate. It was 1968 when Kusama returned to Japan. Soon afterward she began outpatient psychiatric treatment and, in 1977 — on account of what she calls simply, her “mental illness” — she checked herself into the Tokyo mental hospital where she has lived ever since.

The remarkable thing is that Kusama has continued to make powerful art. Even now, at age 74, she spends her days at her studio before returning to the institution at night to sleep. Kusama represented Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and in 1998, “Love Forever,” a major retrospective of her work, opened at the Los Angeles County Museum before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Center in Minneapolis, and then finally to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Last month, “Kusamatrix,” which features mostly new, room-filling installations, opened at the Mori Museum in Roppongi. This may be the best-ever communication of Kusama’s visions, as the scale here means that viewers are not so much looking at the artist’s work, but rather seeing and experiencing the world as she does — “getting into Kusama’s head,” as it were.

Just three days after the Mori show opened, a sprightly Kusama took a break from (literally) chasing her young assistants around her Shinjuku studio, to sit down with me and have a cup of tea and a chat in English and Japanese.

I read with interest a recent article by the art historian Reiko Tomii. She introduces a “history index” for predicting what she terms “the long-term value” of contemporary artists. She then argues that you may rank top on her index of Japanese artists. How do you feel about this history index?

I feel happy about what she wrote, but I am not yet a part of history, I am still active! Even though my Mori exhibition just opened, I am already working on a new solo show for the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art this autumn. From there it will then travel to a total of five other museums.

Will it be a retrospective?

It will feature old work and new work both; they want more new pieces but I don’t have so much time to make them. It was very difficult to get everything ready for the Mori Museum show.

Did “Kusamatrix” turn out as you had envisioned it?

Yes, I am very satisfied with the exhibition. It was a lot of work, there is a lot of space and a lot of rooms. Did you see it?

Yes, it a rich experience, like entering another world.

Thank you. What was your favorite piece?

I liked it all, especially the “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies,” which took my breath away. I also enjoyed the large installation called “Hi, Konnichiwa,” the scene filled with happy children and little dogs surprised me as it seems like a departure for you. I especially liked the smell from all the hay on the floor.

The olfactory sense is said to be our most nostalgic. Was this effect something you meant to trigger with “Hi, Konnichiwa?”

The hay is the smell of Mother Earth, and yes it was inspired in part by memories of when I was a little girl in Matsumoto. But I also tried to express a vision of the childhood I wanted, but could not have; the happiness that I didn’t experience when I was a little girl, since I grew up amid the hardships of the war and with an unhappy home life.

So the happy little girls in the installation are a projection of the childhood you dreamed of. And the dogs — did you have a dog when you were young?

Yes, I had a dog when I was a little girl, oh my, now I forget his name (laughs)! Oh yes, it was Pochi!

You first went to America in 1958, and you have said it was because you wanted to meet Georgia O’Keeffe. Why her?

In Matsumoto there was one small bookstore. They had only one international art book, and I bought it even though it was missing its cover. I became very interested in the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, so I went to Tokyo and visited the American Embassy library, and in “Who’s Who” I found Georgia O’Keeffe’s contact address. Then I sent her a letter asking, “How can I become an artist?” I was very surprised when she responded. She told me to keep painting all the time, and so that is what I did. I also became determined to go to America. When I finally could make the trip over, Georgia O’Keeffe helped me very much, she took me to galleries and she helped me get my very first show.

The “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” flower that O’Keeffe painted is quite unusual because it can change into either a male or a female, depending on environmental conditions.

Is that so?

You have said that you never developed any interest in sex, and yet you have made huge installations comprised of hundreds and even thousands of stuffed phalluslike objects. Also some of your happenings seem to deal with the empowerment of women, or seem antipatriarchal. Are you a feminist, and how would you describe your sexuality?

I would have to say that I have no relationship to feminism, and I don’t relate to any feminist identity. And it is true that I was never interested in sex. However, I did create a body of work called “Sex Obsession” which, as you said, involved making many phalli and then using them to cover and obliterate everyday items like chairs and tables, even a boat. I think that is because when I was young in the Japanese countryside, there was no sexual freedom, but when I got to New York, I could express myself by making the phalli. I also made a series called “Macaroni Obsession,” and the reason was that macaroni is made by machines by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, and I imagined that before we die we must eat hundreds of thousands of macaroni! That scared me, so I made my “Macaroni Obsession” art and covered things with macaroni as a sort of therapy, the same way I made my “Sex Obsession.” In this way, I was able to be released from my fears.

You never married, but you did have a close personal relationship with the American sculptor Joseph Cornell, who was about 25 years older than you. Why was this relationship in particular successful?

Because he liked me so much! He never stopped running after me. Every day he sent me letters, he came to my place all the time. When I visited his house he wouldn’t let me go home, he just kept me there, he blocked the door. Every week he asked me to go to church with him, he wanted me to become a Christian, but I preferred to stay totally free. He loved me, but our relationship was totally platonic.

It is apparent that your time in America changed you. It was difficult for you to get there; you were one of the first Japanese artists to go overseas after the war. These days it is easy for Japanese artists to go overseas. Do you think they can experience the same things you did?

America filled me with energy and it freed me. I met many artists and interesting people. But, yes, it was difficult. I had to work in a factory to get the money I needed, and there were restrictions on the amount of money I could change and carry, and so on. I think it is a good thing that young Japanese artists today can easily visit and live in other countries, but I wonder if some don’t go overseas just to have fun, and then come back to Japan with nothing of value. They ought to work harder, I think.

Do you have a favorite young Japanese artist?

Yes, me, Yayoi Kusama!

Who do you like internationally?

I very much like Louise Bourgeois. We once had the same dealer, and I think she is wonderful. Her “Maman” big spider sculpture, which is installed outside the Mori Art Museum, is a great work.

Speaking of scale, when you developed your style in New York City, your net and dot paintings and objects were hand-crafted, and originally they were small works. In the Mori show, these huge works were, of course, made with industrial processes. How do these two very different ways of making art affect your relationship with your work?

My drawings and paintings in the 1960s, they were a lot of work. I just painted all the time, and soon I realized that I was painting the entire environment surrounding me, not only canvases but desks and tables and chairs and so on. I remember some people took me to the hospital, and they told me I needed a psychiatrist. I visited a psychiatrist for six years in New York, but continued making drawings and paintings as a sort of art therapy. Now, my self-obliteration is communicated with new technology, but the work is still based on the original experience from my past. So my work, this self-obliteration I communicate, is not really changed whether I do it hands-on or whether I use new technology.

In the 1960s you were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Do you still follow politics? For example, the Japanese government has sent armed forces to Iraq — how do you feel about that?

I do still follow politics, and I am against sending the Japanese armed forces to Iraq. It is dangerous, and I believe it could make Japan a target for terror attacks. Japan is moving in the wrong direction these days, we have economic recession, and the young people have many problems. I think Japan has to solve its own economic problems, like unemployment and crime, instead of getting involved in wars overseas. I am always wishing for peace.

You have said many times that art helped you deal with your mental illness. In your essay “Why do I create art?,” you wrote, “If it hadn’t been for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago from an inability to stand the environment.” Instead of a curse, do you think that your mental illness was in some sense a blessing from God, as it gave you the ability to become a great artist?

No, because I don’t believe in divine intervention. I’ve never thought God might have made me ill as part of a plan to guide me toward art.

Your art is based on repetition, do you believe that the human soul also repeats from one life to another, as in the Eastern concept of reincarnation?

I only believe in reincarnation in the sense that, for example, when leaves fall, they then become part of the soil, and they turn into something else. I think that that sort of thing could happen to humans.