I first met Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929, Japan) in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art 2011 exhibition Look Now, See Forever. I don’t mean met her in person, but I met her art. I recall best the dots. She must be the best dotter I have ever come across. I recall standing in the red dots obsession room feeling overjoyed at the audacity that this could be art. Kusama’s work provided an aesthetic affective experience and was surprising and delightful. Could art really be this much fun? At the time I admit I did not immerse myself in the Kusama’s story and her amazing feats as a female Japanese artist in a white men’s art world. I simply took in the colour and brightness as I lost myself in the immersive works, watched the video installations with amusement and was delighted by the enormous flowers that bloom at midnight.
When Louisiana Museum of Modern Art invited to the opening of a Kusama retrospective on the coast north of Copenhagen, of course I was there with dots on – eh, bells on. In 2010, Louisiana acquired Kusama’s work Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008) which has proved very popular with its audiences. We braved the queue and experienced that work earlier in the year – a dark room with a viewing platform that looks into the sense of infinity achieved by water, mirror and colourful lights. A woman in front of us stepped into the water and fell over. Unfortunate for her and us because it took away some of the serenity I am sure Kusama intended to impart with the work.
The repetition in Kusama’s work is the point. Endless repetition of process absorbs the artist to the point of obliteration. The Infinity Nets and the Accumulation Sculptures are cases in point. One marvels at the handiwork and repetition required to complete the works that seem to go beyond their form and absorb the viewer as well.
It is said that Kusama’s work is work on surfaces, but not superficial. The patterns of dots, nets and accumulations spread out on large surfaces that could go on forever, if the surface had not ceased. In a short video work from 1967, she invites the viewer into her golden room where everything is adorned with dots. The video swirls the viewer into the room, into the dotted surfaces that extend beyond the cups, saucers and tablecloth to the walls, floor and ceiling. The viewer is obliterated in Kusama’s universe that is neverending, infinite. The paintings go beyond the canvas, beyond the finite borders of the work itself and becomes something else that impacts the whole space. Standing in front of one of the large infinity nets reminds us how small and insignificant the artist and the viewer are, exactly because the patterns and the dots could go on forever. The Louisiana exhibition title is literally translated In the Infinite.
As a retrospective the exhibition also covers Kusama’s New York happenings, her 1960s fashion label, Nude Fashion, and her 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton and her series My Eternal Soul that reflects her struggle with suicide and mortality. Even the white Obliteration Room was installed for visitors to try their hand at becoming absorbed in placing dots in the white room. The Obliteration Room was first commissioned by Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2002, and was reinstalled earlier this year at that Gallery. Fun to see it here in Denmark, where visitors were busily decorating the room already on opening night.
Kusama left New York in the late 1960s to return to Japan. In Japan she checked in to a privately run psychiatric health facility where she still lives and works at the age of 86. She has continued to be productive and has also written literary works. She sees her art expression as a consequence as well as a protection of her mental health. Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us: Unleash our anxieties creatively to protect ourselves from being obliterated by them.