Victory on points

Yayoi Kusama has established herself internationally through her seemingly playful art. Behind her work’s jovial allure is a creative path and suffering that spans more than 80 years. The Gropius Bau in Berlin is dedicating a major retrospective to her.

In every genre of art, at every time, some exceptional people create the extraordinary work because they perceive the world differently from normal people. “Normality (denotes) desirable, acceptable, healthy, supportable behaviour in contrast to undesirable, treatable, disturbed, deviant behaviour,” says the Spektrum lexicon of psychology. The exceptional Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is such a case. In need of treatment, she admitted herself to a mental hospital in 1977; but her wishes for a better, more loving world are not abnormal.

Yayoi Kusama, Portrait. YAYOI KUSAMA, Courtsey: Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro & David Zwirner
Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, Installation view “THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS”, 2021, Gropius Bau.
Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, Installation view “My Eternal Soul” series, 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini.
Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, Installation view “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, New York, 1963”, 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini.

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto in 1929. Even as a child, she developed hallucinations: “One day, looking at a red floral tablecloth, I turned my eyes to the ceiling and saw the same red flower pattern everywhere, even on the window panes and frames. The room, my body, the entire universe was filled with it. This was not an illusion, but reality,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Odyssey of My Struggling Soul.

For decades, the dense polka dots patterns have been Kusama’s artistic trademark. She not only decorated entire rooms and fashion collections with them, but also painted people in performances. Even before there was talk of immersive art, the psychotic artist had created it, when Kusama – herself wrapped in dots – she stood in her installations, her body merged with the sculpture.

This feeling can now be experienced in the great retrospective in Berlin’s Gropius Bau. In 19 rooms, some 300 works by the still meticulously creative 92-year-old are on display. A wonderful experience that feels like a warm embrace, especially after emotionally drained pandemic times. A Bouquet of Love – I Saw it in the Universe, thus is the title. Visitors are supposed to lose themselves in it, feeling almost get dizzy.

Eight installations reconstructed

To this end, director and curator Stephanie Rosenthal has reconstructed eight historical installations. She begins with the first exhibition in Kusama’s hometown. In her youth, patriarchal post-war Japan became too confining for the young artist. She moved to New York in 1957 and dove into the art scene. In her studio, starving and losing track of time, she worked to exhaustion. She asserted herself in an industry dominated by white American men. Her role model was the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, with whom she had previously corresponded and who motivated her to emigrate.

In the 1960s, she created soft sculptures – phallus-shaped ones. This, of course, fits perfectly into the time of the sexual revolution. In Yayoi Kusama’s case, however, it is another form of self-therapy, a working through of traumatic experiences from her own parental home. In Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show the artist sits naked on a rowing boat filled with fabric phalli.

In around 1966, she developed a variant of the Infinity Rooms: mirrored rooms that reflect themselves infinitely – an effect she still uses today. She also created an Infinity Mirror Room for the Gropius Bau. Its philosophical title reads: The Eternally Infinite Light of the Universe Illuminating the Quest for Truth.

A highlight of this art form is her Narcissus Garden, at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Although she had not been invited as an artist, through her collaboration with Lucio Fontana, she received permission to lay out 1500 mirror balls on the lawn in front of the Italian pavilion. Visitors scrambled for the balls, which she sold for two dollars each. The idea of a comparatively cheap object with a limited edition was later copied by many studios. However, the Biennale management forbade her to commercialise it – with the result that the remaining balls were stolen from the lawn. In 1993, Yayoi Kusama officially performed at the Japanese Pavilion.

Painting – back to her roots

In between this activity were difficult years. Her involvement in New York – with provocative performances in the city and orgiastic happenings in her workshop ­– took its toll. Psychologically drained, she returned to Japan in the early seventies and decided to live in the protected space of a Tokyo clinic.

Some ten years later, younger curators discover her vivacious work. Kusama is now painting again, in acrylics on canvas. The final room in the Berlin exhibition is entitled My Eternal Soul; with the tight hanging of biomorphic motifs, she returns to her beginning. Originally intended to comprise one hundred works, the series has now grown to well over seven hundred.

Obsessive patterns engulf the visitor and draw them into the artist’s mysterious universe. Yayoi Kusama has used art to reconcile herself with the world, including her family. The vitality and positive aura of the works give strength and also appeal to young visitors. According to Stephanie Rosenthal, it is the most comprehensive Kusama exhibition Europe has ever seen.

Yayoi Kusama calls it a “greeting to the world” from her self-imposed isolation and associates the paintings with a wish for healing. Not for personal recovery – she has long since resigned herself to that – but for an end to the pandemic.

Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective. Gropius Bau, Berlin (until 15 August). www.berlinerfestspiele.de

Kusama – The Graphic Novel

With the comic book Kusama, illustrator Elisa Macellari has succeeded in a congenial realisation of Kusama’s dotted world. The biography illustrates the subtle perception of the cult artist and tells adults and young people about an unusual woman.

Published by Laurence King (2020). Hardcover, 128 pages, 14 euro.

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