Interview: Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is perhaps Japan's most famous living artist. From her groundbreaking work in New York in the 1950s and 60s, when she evolved unique abstract minimalist 'net paintings,' pop art soft sculptures, and participated in wild, psychedelic 'happenings', involving nudity and polka dots, to her more recent work, creating mind-boggling installations and 'art environments,' she has always been at the cutting edge. 

This is a remarkable achievement, considering the fickleness of the art world and the 75-year-old artist's own evident mental fragility. It is also an achievement that is now being fully recognized in her home country, with a comprehensive retrospective exhibition that has already visited two major museums in Japan and will appear in three more later this year.

We meet at her Tokyo studio, with representatives from Bombay Sapphire, the blue gin company, in the next room.

Dressed in a DayGlo orange wig and a dress decorated with a vivid Op Art pattern lifted from her painting Yellow Trees (1994), Kusama stands out from the dull, gray fabric of reality by several notches. She is immediately keen to introduce the more recent works included in the exhibition, like Fireflies on the Water (2000), a dark, enchanted mirrored room with a floor of reflective water and hundreds of small colored fairy lights.

"This is new," she announces enthusiastically, pointing to the work as it appears in the lavishly illustrated catalogue for the exhibition. "It became the cover of a very famous magazine of art in New York that is sold in many museum bookstores all over the world."

My first impression is that for such a renowned and famous artist, she seems to be working unnecessarily hard to promote her work and legacy, as she now presses a book into my hand that details some of her nude happenings in the 60s.

"This was shown on German television," she recalls. "There were 4,000 people in the audience. My dancers made polka dots all over their bodies. It became famous throughout the whole of Germany and this book was sold all over the World."

I don't have time to make a note of the book's title or even establish the date of the event, as Kusama maintains a constant flow of memories and achievements, as if trying to tell me everything she has ever done in a prolific career that has spanned decades and employed many different media. She has not just been a painter and installationist, but has also tried her hand at choreography, novel writing, and fashion design, famously designing clothes with large holes in them in the 'anything goes' decade of the 1960s.

Her art is very firmly rooted in that decade with its message of mind-expansion, cultural fusion, and peace. In particular she was deeply connected with the anti-war movement and agrees that being an Asian gave her protests against the war in Vietnam greater poignancy. This period of protest still seems very much alive in her as she asks about the previous US Presidential election, momentarily mixing up the names of George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson, the earlier "war president" against whom she staged her wild, avant-garde happenings.

"When the Vietnam War became the worst, like Iraq, I made many happenings all over New York, at churches, Wall Street, and the UN," she remembers proudly. "I burned 40 or 50 flags of the United States. We also protested outside the Stock Exchange with naked dancers."

She sees these transitory happenings as events of great significance, the memory of which must be preserved. While her relentless drive to publicize and assert her legacy can sometimes be overwhelming, it is also great for producing controversial quotes, as Kusama has none of the cozy politeness or quid pro quo of art world insiders, and speaks with a freshness and an innocence that is no respecter of reputations. For example, she is eager to put Claes Oldenburg, an artist often seen as the originator of soft sculpture, in his 'correct' art historical place.

"I was before him," she says without any hesitation. "His wife came to see me at a group show at the Green Gallery in the early 60s. About 5 months later, he had a one-man show at this gallery where he presented his first soft sculpture. She said to me 'I'm sorry, Kusama, we used your idea.' But I don't care because I moved on to different ideas."

She is also unsparing of rivals, insisting that I don't mention by name another New York-based Japanese female artist of the 60s who won undying fame by marrying a certain singer-songwriter from Liverpool.

"She came to see me when she was very poor – 5 or 6 years before she met John Lennon," she says with the pride of an artist whose fame was secured by her laurels rather than her nuptials. "She was so poor because she didn't make any important shows. She was working at a coffee shop, and her husband was an apartment superintendent."

The obsession and sometimes spite with which she defends her legacy might be ascribed to the mental fragility that has added to her mystique, but if she is, as many say, a little crazy, she is crazy like a fox, as almost every twist and turn of her long career has proved her uncanny artistic judgment.

The exhibition, which opened at MoMA, Tokyo, even includes a sketch from 1939 by the 10-year old Kusama, revealing an interest in dots that clearly hasn't gone away. Other works show various early influences. Lingering Dream (1949) is a nod in the direction of the stylized plant-scapes of Georgia O’Keeffe, the American artist who encouraged Kusama to move to America in 1957, while the powerful Accumulation of the Corpses (1950) sees this biomorphoic language used to express dark, troubled feelings.

Some of these feelings were clearly of a sexual nature, leading to her phenomenal Sex Obsession works from 1961 onwards, in which normal objects like chairs, stepladders, and boats were encrusted with dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of soft phallic protuberances, sewn from cloth and stuffed with cotton, the precursors to Oldenburg's works. One of the most hilarious of these is Macaroni Dress (1963), a delicate tutu-like dress on which a profusion of soft, cloth phalluses appears to have grown like mold. Another, Traveling Life (1964), seems to equate sexual fear with vertigo.

"Sex Obsession is man's phallus covering all over the world," she explains. "I was troubled about sex because I don't like men's phalluses. Then I made many phalluses – thousands and thousands – and this helped me to overcome my sexual phobia."

Around this time she was having an affair with artist Joseph Cornell, who was reputedly as afraid of women as Kusama seems to have been of men. Minimalist Donald Judd is also rumored to have been among her lovers. Although her Sex Obsession works clearly express mixed feelings about sexuality, Kusama is happy to see them as part of the sexual revolution of the sixties that helped to overturn, older, more socially responsible attitudes to sex. The main point for Kusama is that her art be viewed as perpetually revolutionary and avant-garde.

"My work became pioneering work more than anybody in my New York period," she insists. "Happenings, installations, sculpture, painting, everything! Many artists were influenced by me. Very important art philosophy came from my ideas too."

Although overstating her case, these are not the words of a senile old woman, as the continued brilliance of more recent installations testify. Rooted in the Sixties, Kusama's work continues to follow that decade's agenda of mind expansion, with art seeking hallucinogenic effects, like the kaleidoscopic Infinity Mirrored Room (2001) or the fluorescent polka dots of I'm Here, but Nothing (2000). Although the relevance of such mind expansion has rightfully been viewed with some skepticism because it doesn’t always involve an expansion of knowledge, there is no denying Kusama’s creativity and strong aesthetic sense.

In her Sex Obsession works and also in her Self Obliteration works, in which dots were used to obscure the self, it is possible to see a connection with certain streams of Asiatic thought, like the polymorphous nature of the sexual life force in Japanese Shinto, or the self abnegation inherent in Buddhism. However, any inference like this that detracts from the notion of the individual artist as the pure font of creativity is not welcome. Indeed, she'd rather attribute her artistic inspirations to personal mental illness than to any sensitivity towards cultural and spiritual traditions.

"I am fighting with my sickness from childhood," she protests. "This made me original and creative. It's not from Buddhism or Shinto. I was Kusama only. I made the new idea more than Shinto, more than Buddhism. The development of my philosophy in sculpture, installation, and happenings, was all my ideas, against the old-fashioned ideas."

Although there are elements of minimalism, Pop Art and Op Art in her work, her minimalism remains more organic, her Pop Art more abstract, and her Op Art more psychological than that of her contemporaries. The Japanese are often accused of lacking true creativity and copying all their best ideas from foreigners. So, Kusama's biggest achievement in her remarkable career was that, during her New York period, when she associated with some of the most creative and influential minds of her time, her art remained always unique and influenced others more than she was ever influenced by them.

The Yayoi Kusama Retrospective ran at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art from 22 February to 17 April, 2005, the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto from 29 April – 3 July, 2005, and the Matsumoto City Museum, from 30 July – 10 October, 2005.

NY Arts
February, 2005

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