You may know Yayoi Kusama for her polka-dotted pumpkins or Insta-ready exhibitions, but this artist from Matsumoto has a long history of radical forms of expression. This week, culture critic Thu-Huong Ha joins the podcast to explain Kusama’s latest stage of evolution.

Hosted by Jason Jenkins and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Jason Jenkins:  00:10

Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Jason Jenkins, and I’m standing on the sidewalk in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi shopping district, directly in front of the Osaka branch of the luxury retailer Louis Vuitton … and I’m looking at the window displays. The first thing I see are these massive pumpkin sculptures covered in thousands of colorful dots. Next to them are mannequins … also covered in dots. And the clothes the mannequins are wearing? You guessed it: Dots. 

Behind the mannequins is a massive LED screen, maybe 6 or 7 meters tall.  Onscreen, there’s a woman wearing a polka-dot dress and a red wig, busily painting an even larger pumpkin. The woman I see is animated, but she’s based on a real person, Yayoi Kusama: one of the most successful living artists today. If you were in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York right now, you would see Kusama at the Louis Vuitton store there, as well: sometimes as an animatronic robot, sometimes as a giant inflatable doll looming over the building with her paintbrush.

In response to all the recent fanfare, Japan Times culture writer Thu-Huong Ha has written a recent piece on Kusama, and I invited her on to talk with me about Kusama’s life, her work, her cultural influence and possibly a hint at the next step in her evolution.

Hey Thu, welcome back to the show.

Thu-Huong Ha  01:8  

Hey Jason, thanks for having me.

Jason Jenkins  01:39  

I really enjoyed your piece on Yayoi Kusama last week, and I wanted to start the show off by just simply asking who is Yayoi Kusama?

Thu-Huong Ha  01:46  

A deceptively simple question, Jason. Well, first of all, Yayoi Kusama is an artist — she is one of the most successful living Japanese artists. But I think it's actually an important question to ask because her name might not be as recognizable to listeners as her work. She is the maker of the famous pumpkin … you know, the pumpkin? The pumpkin in Naoshima — that pumpkin has appeared all over the world in different forms. The most iconic one, I think, is the yellow and black one. But there's also a red and black one. So some people I think might only know her from that.

Jason Jenkins  02:23  

You're talking about the yellow and black pumpkin. A lot of people know the sculpture in Naoshima in Japan's Inland Sea, that massive one that sits right out in front of the water.

Thu-Huong Ha  02:30  

Yes, that famously blew away in a typhoon in 2021.

Jason Jenkins  02:34  

But you might also see that on posters or T-shirts or lots of other places.

Thu-Huong Ha  02:39  

I had it as my Twitter banner for a while. And she's also known by other people as the polka dot Princess, Princess of polka dots. 

Jason Jenkins  02:46

Heavy use of the dots… 

Thu-Huong Ha  02:49

Lots and lots of dots. And she's also known for her “infinity rooms.” But if you've never seen a queue for a Yayoi Kusama piece, you know, I've seen people crowd around the pumpkin in Naoshima. I've seen people wrapped around the block in the winter in New York to get into the Infinity Room. You know, one thing that she's known for is creating these massively popular pieces that people actually want to stand in line for. 

Jason Jenkins  03:12  

But she doesn't just have mass appeal, right? Collectors want to buy her work as well.

Thu-Huong Ha  03:17  

Yeah, definitely. She is considered the best selling female artist on the art market. In 2020, she generated a total of $67 million at auction. That following year, $174 million. And that pushed her into the top 10 globally selling artists of that year, and that was the first time a female artist got into that list. So she can be considered a mainstream artist, she can be considered a bestselling artist. I think that certain collectors don't take her seriously, though, and some people might consider her a phony, a fraud or even a sellout.

Jason Jenkins  03:53  

Why is that? 

Thu-Huong Ha  03:54  

Well, I think that the reason that we're talking today is that she's done this collaboration with Louis Vuitton. It's actually the second time she's done it, but this one is a huge sort of all-encompassing collaboration. And she's been part of this campaign, this marketing campaign that is really over the top and people you know, it's, it's a little silly, obviously that's a very subjective word to use. But you know, she — when I say “she,” I mean a Kusama-esque likeness — appeared in the window fronts of Louis Vuitton stores in New York City and in Tokyo. So it's a sort of humanoid robot painting dots on the windows. In Paris, there is a huge Macy's Parade-level, like balloon or…

Jason Jenkins  04:42  

Ah it's inflatable? I wasn't sure what it was. Yeah, it has to be inflatable. 

Thu-Huong Ha  04:46  

It's inflatable, yeah. And it's sort of clinging to the top of the flagship store there. And I mean, they're not classy. I mean, they're not elegant.

Jason Jenkins  04:58  

But what they are is over the top and they are global, right? And I mean, that's one of the reasons we're talking about her today is because this is a massive campaign, and they've put Kusama front and center and those dots, those dots are there again, we've got dots now on luxury bags and the same kinds of dots that she was was painting back in the ’60s, right?

Thu-Huong Ha  05:24  

That's right, the repeating patterns — almost claustrophobic. 

Jason Jenkins  05:27  

And why dots? And why so many? 

Thu-Huong Ha  05:29 

Well, she has often said that her art is a way of her dealing with her own obsessions and her own trauma. So, I think infinity is … infinity anything, you know, infinity tiny LED lights, infinity polka dots, infinity nets, which is another one of her themes — all of these are part of her attempt at dealing with a kind of obsession.

Jason Jenkins  05:51  

Right. Infinity is one of the main themes that you see in all her work, the mirrored rooms, anyone who's ever been in, say, a mirrored dressing room or a mirrored elevator knows how it just seems to go on forever and ever. And she uses that effect for those who haven't seen it with dots to go on forever, LED lights that go on forever. And this really is this endless space for these endless dots are really tied into the themes and sort of the ideas she's trying to express.

Thu-Huong Ha  06:21  

That's right. Yeah, she has said that one of her recurring hallucinations is to see this overlay of dots on top of everything, and she has work that mimics that hallucination.

Jason Jenkins  06:32  

Since you mentioned the hallucinations, this touches on another main thing that people know about Kusama is her struggles with mental health.

Thu-Huong Ha  06:39  

Right, she's very open about it, as I said. She sees her work as a way of dealing with some of her obsessions and she returned to Tokyo from the U.S. just under 50 years ago. And she's lived in a psychiatric hospital ever since she came back.

Clip:  06:51

Jason Jenkins  07:21  

And now I knew all of this, all of the stuff we've talked about. I think anybody interested in contemporary art knows at least a few of those facts about Yayoi Kusama, but I think a lot of people still imagine her as this old woman in a red wig painting dots, I think maybe I did as well. But after reading your piece, I dug in a little more and started researching her, and I was just really surprised how little I knew about her life as a whole.

Thu-Huong Ha  07:49  

Yeah, she's, you know, she's 93. She has been making art for a long time and she's really been around. And so yeah, it makes sense that now the image that most people have of her is this old lady. But you know, in the ’60s, I think one thing that surprises people is that 10 years after she arrived in New York City, she was staging these pretty radical happenings. This was the era of happenings in art…

Jason Jenkins  08:18  

’60s counterculture, all part of the time…

Thu-Huong Ha  08:21  

Yeah, she was throwing orgies, dude. Like she, I don’t know how else to put it. She was getting…

Jason Jenkins  08:29  

There's no delicate way to put “orgies in the garden of a museum,” right? 

Thu-Huong Ha  08:35  

Um, I think part of what she was celebrating was the “free love” movement. She was also protesting the America-Vietnam War. She was getting people to meet at the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden — a very stiff place at the time — and people were undressing, people were starting to make out, people were starting to have sex, and she was there. She was wearing this really intense makeup and she was painting people. She would let people come to her studio and pay to paint naked models. She had this alleged list of 400 young gay men that she had on call that people could just like, come and take them into a back room — question mark, question mark — and like, you know, paint them? Question mark, question mark!

Jason Jenkins  09:21  

For a price, right? She had an entrepreneurial spirit, obviously.

Thu-Huong Ha  09:26   

Yes, exactly. She was running these as businesses. Those are words that she uses: “enterprises.” One of my favorite of her works is, one of her very early styles was soft sculptures. I saw them years ago at one of her retrospectives. They were so gross. Like they're sort of like sofas and couches and chairs, with just covered in these tubular penises, and they make you feel gross, but they're really, really compelling. So she's really tried a lot of things and been successful, gotten famous, and then you know, just done something totally different.

Jason Jenkins  10:15  

Yeah, and this stands in contrast to Kusama as a person. She's been very vocal that she doesn't like sex. There may have been some trauma with that, I'm not sure, but she was throwing sex parties but not participating in them. She's making the sculptures of penises but said she was terrified of them. She just had this strange dichotomy in her relationship with sex. And then you mentioned the cadre of young gay men. She even performed a wedding ceremony for two men?

Thu-Huong Ha  10:34  

Yeah, she had a gay wedding in New York. She threw a gay wedding. That was I think, 35 years give or take before the first same sex marriage was legal in the United States. So she's not just that wig lady in the window.

Jason Jenkins  10:47  

Certainly not. I mean, these stories sort of flesh out this idea of she was subversive, essentially. And was for many, many years before she began to shill luxury handbags.

Thu-Huong Ha  10:59  

Right? Yeah, she was a rebel

Jason Jenkins  11:12  

So, we've talked about Yayoi Kusama the artist — where does she come from though? Where did it all start?"

Thu-Huong Ha  11:17  

Well, she was born in 1929 in Matsumoto. She comes from a wealthy family, not especially supportive of her art. In particular, her mother, she talks often about her mother coming upon Kusama and either tearing up her illustrations or her materials. It wasn't really appropriate for a woman of her standing to become an artist. She thought, if anything, maybe she could be a collector, but she really obviously just wanted her to quit and get married. And Kusama decided that if she really wanted to pursue what she wanted to make, she'd have to leave Japan. And around that time she came upon the work of George O'Keeffe.

Jason Jenkins  11:55  

Georgia O'Keeffe, the American painter, most people would know or at least recognize her large flower paintings or landscapes of New Mexico.

Thu-Huong Ha  12:05

Right. So, Kusama wrote to O'Keefe and asked for her advice, and O'Keefe wrote back, surprisingly — I mean, to Kusama’s surprise — you know, some encouraging, but pretty blunt words about how difficult it would be for Kusama to pursue art in the U.S. In 1958, she arrives in New York.

Jason Jenkins  12:26  

It's worth mentioning. I mean, this is the U.S. in 1958. World War II had not ended that long ago, and here's this Japanese woman showing up trying to break into the art world.

Thu-Huong Ha  12:36  

Right, I mean, art in the United States is white and male, and it was a lot more of those two things at that time.

Jason Jenkins  12:45  

But I liked how she seemed to be able to find a way to turn this obstacle into an advantage. How did she do that?

Thu-Huong Ha  12:53  

Yeah, in coverage about her people who knew her at the time, describe her as showing up at the galleries and really promoting herself and really, really trying to make the right connections. So she's going to different galleries, she's trying to find funders, she's trying to convince people to give her shows, and I think she's really struggling. She's seeing how much of a boys club it was. And so, by some accounts, she's kind of started to play up her own differences, her “Japanese-ness,” her femininity, and she started to wear kimono to big events, and you know, attracting attention to herself. And she was, you know, she was pretty ruthless. And I think that she was by the same accounts, she was looking for the right influential men to be her patrons and to help her navigate the world.

Jason Jenkins  13:40  

So, to me, this seems to be like one of the early signs of a track or, well, I see it as these two tracks she's on: there's this one track of the concepts and the ideas she's working with, and the art she makes from that. And then there's this other track of her fortifying her image or building up her own mystique. Is that how you see it?

Thu-Huong Ha  14:01  

I mean, I'm not sure I see it as two tracks at all. I think it's really, it's one track. It's an all encompassing force that is part of who she is as an artist. Whether or not it started that way is different. 

Jason Jenkins  14:13  

Oh, OK. Yeah. And maybe to paint a picture of the art world in the ’50s and ’60s, she was contemporaries with people like Andy Warhol with Lucas Samaras, and I mentioned these two in particular, because she has essentially stated that they may have even lifted some of her ideas. 

Thu-Huong Ha  14:33  

Yes, there have been some claims made. Kusama alleges that Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras and Claes Oldenburg all took ideas from her, essentially. I mean, what we can say for sure is that before Claes Oldenburg — who's known for these big soft like, hamburgers, and big soft sculptures — ever came out with any work like that, Kusama had just done it.

Jason Jenkins  14:57  

Yeah, when I read about her making that claim, I went and I checked on it, and I looked and you know, those chairs that you're talking about that she made with all the protuberances on it — that was in a show in June of 1962. Oldenburg soft sculptures? September of 1962. We're talking just a few months later, and he had never done anything like that. So it is a little suspect, don’t you think?

Thu-Huong Ha  15:19  

I think what we can say is that she was well ahead of her time, you know, I mean, she really felt overlooked for her art. And I think that she was having a lot of trouble getting into the galleries, getting all these gatekeepers to approve of her and invite her and that might have pushed her to start doing these happenings in public places where she was sort of on her own terms. I mean, yeah, cops were there, but you know, and I think that what she did at the 1963 Venice Biennale was a perfect example of this.

Jason Jenkins  15:47  

Oh yeah, break that down for us.

Thu-Huong Ha  15:49  

So the Venice Biennale is one of the biggest events of the global art calendar. Different countries are invited to do their own pavilions and to showcase their own artists. Kusama in 1963 was not invited, officially, but she showed up anyway determined to show her art at the Venice Biennale. She still maintains that she got a verbal OK from the committee, but she was not like part of the the …

Jason Jenkins 16:14 

She wasn't in the program, essentially. 

Thu-Huong Ha  16:15

She was not in the program. Yeah, she was not in the pavilion. She brought all these mirrored balls and she put them on the grass and started to sell them — $2 at the time, you know, “see your own narcissism.” 

Jason Jenkins  16:28  

Yeah, right. It was a statement on narcissism. I saw the picture — there's actually a sign that said “narcissism for sale,” right?

Thu-Huong Ha  16:33  

Right, something like that. And she got in trouble, the Biennale officials came up to her and told her to pack up and leave, and at that point she took off the kimono she was wearing and she was wearing this bright red leotard underneath. And she started to like, dance among the balls and lie in the grass and stuff, and there were all these photos that came out. And you know, I think she blows up quite a bit as the kind of the enfant terrible of this 1963 Biennale.

Jason Jenkins  17:01  

Yeah. So she's kicked out, or — is she kicked out? It's not clear. But you know, the Venice Biennale of 1963, she is told to leave. But then you fast-forward 30 years and in 1993, at the Venice Biennale, she's representing the entire country of Japan. A one-woman show, one of the first times that had ever happened. It's astounding this sort of turnaround, this comeback story.

Thu-Huong Ha  17:26  

Yeah, I mean, I think that it's obviously a testament to how compelling she is not just as an artist, but as a figure. And as somebody who's able to capture the public's attention. So we have her leaving as a young woman, feeling not accepted by Japanese society or by her family, and going to New York not being accepted by the galleries and not be accepted by the extremely white male world, to getting kicked out of the Venice Biennale in 1963 — to becoming the representative for Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. And it's kind of a mystery what exactly that power is.

Clip  18:14  

Jason Jenkins  18:29 

OK Thu, now let's dig into the piece you wrote for The Japan Times. It's called “Is this Yayoi Kusama’s final evolution?” You and I talked a little about Kusama when this Louis Vuitton campaign first came out. Why did you decide to write about Kusama now?

Thu-Huong Ha  18:43  

Well, I think that there's this question: she's the face of this massive, who knows how many millions of dollars campaign for an extremely well-known luxury brand. It's not the most elegant execution. It's surprisingly, I don't know, tacky? And like, kind of gaudy? I think that there's some question of, with, given her age, given her history of mental illness, you know, a lot of her work nowadays is about how old she is and about the legacy she's gonna leave behind after she's dead. I mean, I think there's these questions of like, is she still in control of her legacy? Is there someone behind her, kind of taking advantage of her in order to make money. Is she still being true to herself as an artist and as a person? And I thought that it was a good time to ask some of those questions.

Jason Jenkins  19:33  

And what were the answers you came up with?

Thu-Huong Ha  19:36  

I have all the answers! (laughs) You know, I think it helps  — it helped me as a writer, but also it helps for readers to understand her in context and to see the larger body of her work — to kind of see that this is not off-base for her. She is a master of getting attention from the beginning when she arrived in New York, and she felt like she wasn't able to, and this is my read, but she wasn't able to just get by just on the merits of her paintings. She had to go big, and she had to explode as a personality. And so this is a natural evolution for her as she just gets bigger and bigger, physically bigger, just — department-store-sized Kusama. 

Jason Jenkins 20:18

Six-floor Kusama, right? 

Thu-Huong Ha  20:20  

Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think it does seem like a natural part of the progression of her as a figure.

Jason Jenkins  20:24  

Yeah, this seems in keeping with her earlier, like when I was talking about the different tracks, you have the kimonos, the nude happenings, the mirror balls — she creates spectacles, she is a spectacle. And these Louis Vuitton windows are just the latest iteration of that. And now, this isn't even the first time she's worked with Louis Vuitton. And of course, Vuitton and other luxury brands have worked with other artists, obviously, but what I really liked in this piece was your idea of her evolution into a brand, essentially, not just because she slapped her dots onto a $500 or $1,000 bag, but that, through her art and her image, she transcended just this regular person. Could you unpack that a little bit? Kusama’s evolution as a brand.

Thu-Huong Ha  21:15  

Yeah, I mean, I think she, as I tried to argue, is not confined to genre. It's not the case that she's currently moving out of avant garde art into fashion or moving out of high art into pop art or high art into the mainstream. She's always been moving between these different places, and moving beyond them. She doesn't really belong in any specific category. And I think that she's always seen herself as — as she uses the word — an enterprise.

Jason Jenkins  21:52  

I just find it kind of astounding that she was an outsider — separate from everything, felt separate from everything, wasn't really doing things for other people — at least she was doing it for herself. And yet her work becomes so popular and loved around the world. You yourself said earlier that people lined up around the block just to spend 10 minutes inside one of her mirrored rooms or other exhibits. And then today, as you said, in your piece, she sort of fits so neatly into meme culture and the era of Instagram.

Thu-Huong Ha  22:22  

Yeah, I mean, I think that's something that Kusama saw from the very beginning, whether she dictated this change in art, or whether she rode the wave, it's really hard to say with her. But she understood the power of the image. I mean, in the ’60s, everyone was waking up to the power of the image, the power of photography and media and changing the mind of the public. She understood that and she was a part of that. Her face was seen, and I think that now the thing that her art is a part of is not only the power of the image but the power of the user in that image, and the power of individual people to make the art their own, which happens through selfies. I mean, she is just … she's really capitalized on this kind of experiential art, this highly shareable, Instagrammable stuff, and people aren't going to line up for her work if they can't take a photo of themselves in it. Of course, that art exists as well, and still is popular among art people. But I think that what people are really excited about with her is to make their own version of whatever she's made with their face in it. So you know, I think that it's hard to say if she shapes or if she grabs on to the times, but it kind of doesn't matter. She might be the world's most Instagrammable artist, and that's what makes her so powerful today.

Jason Jenkins  23:44  

#Kusama. All right, last question Thu. When am I going to see you with a Louis Vuitton Kusama bag on your arm?

Thu-Huong Ha  23:52  

Well, you know, I’m probably not the audience for this specific luxury brand. I think the bags are actually a little bit underwhelming, just some dots on a Louis Vuitton bag, but I did see some really nice black heels with polka dots on the heel itself, which looks really nice. And you know, I think I get into that just you know what's two, three months of rent for some shoes?

Jason Jenkins  24:17  

It's only money right?

Thu-Huong Ha  24:18  

Only money. Life is short, buy the damn shoes.

Jason Jenkins  24:24

Thanks again to Thu-Huong Ha for talking art and commerce with me this week. If you'd like to read more of Thu’s work or learn more about Yayoi Kusama then check out the links in the show notes of this episode.

Also in the Japan Times, Jason Coskrey reports on the World Baseball Classic and the excitement surrounding pitcher Roki Sasaki. Eric Margolis writes about the remarkable biodiversity found in some of Japan’s shrine and temple gardens. And Will Fee speaks to a group of young Ukrainian evacuees learning to adapt to life in Japan. For these stories and thousands more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times.

Production for Deep Dive is by Dave Cortez. Our intern is Natalia Makohon, and the outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd. Our theme song is by the Japanese artist LLLL. Thanks for joining us and, until next time, podtsukaresama.