Yayoi Kusama, a story of poi(d)s

Photographie de l'oeuvre Yellow Pumpkin de Yayoi Kusama

At Perdième , we give pride of place to the aesthetics and originality of the patterns that adorn our menstrual and classic lingerie creations. The very essence of the brand: to sublimate female bodies every day with fashion pieces that are certainly functional and practical but also graphic, elegant and colorful. We previously spoke to you on the blog about the importance of pattern in the arts and its strong power of inspiration for creative people of all times. Among the big names in the artistic world who have made a particular pattern their signature, there is Yayoi Kusama and her polka dots . The work of the Japanese artist is highlighted in 2021 in two retrospectives , one in Berlin and the other in New York . The opportunity for Perdième to talk to you about this emblematic figure of contemporary art and his obsession with polka-dot .

Remarkable retrospectives dedicated to Yayoi Kusama in Berlin and New York in 2021

For a little over a decade, the atypical work of the prolific Yayoi Kusama has been the subject of numerous exhibitions orchestrated by the world's most renowned modern art museums. In this year 2021, the cities of Berlin and New York are hosting the creations of the Japanese celebrity.

“Yayoi Kusama: a retrospective” at the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin

Between April and August 2021, the Gropius Bau, a museum located in the center of the German capital, exhibits around 300 works created by Yayoi Kusama during her 80-year career. Entitled Yayoi Kusama: a retrospective , the exhibition focuses on the consideration of the artist's work in Germany and Europe. Drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, videos, clothing and installations bear witness to the great diversity of techniques and media used by Kusama between the 1940s and today.

Visitors can discover:
  • Old works, such as identical reproductions of eight past exhibitions, designed at the time by Yayoi Kusama herself, thus showing her own way of presenting her work;
  • recent creations, such as certain paintings completed only a few months earlier;
  • and new productions, including the brand new Infinity Mirror Room , created in 2020 and named The Eternal Infinite Light of the Universe Illuminating the Quest for Truth .
    But the flagship piece of the exhibition can be admired as soon as you enter the museum: a colossal installation made of 16 gigantic tentacles – the tallest reaches 11 meters –, neon pink with black polka dots, which spring from the floor of the atrium and undulate towards the glass ceiling. Created especially for this event at the Gropius Bau, A Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe is a direct dive into the phantasmagorical world of the visual artist.
    Detail photograph of the work A Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, A Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe , 2020, detail of the installation presented at the exhibition Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective (2021), Gropius Bau, Berlin

    Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at the New York Botanical Garden

    Since spring 2021, the Big Apple has let Yayoi Kusama's “ Cosmic Nature ” bloom and flourish in its botanical garden, located in the Bronx district, north of Manhattan. It is a green setting well chosen to illustrate the influence of the plant world on all of the artist's work. Delayed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition offers the public a joyful and colorful walk in the hundred-hectare park.

    Photograph of the work Starry Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Starry Pumpkin , 2015, exhibition Kusama: Cosmic Nature (2021), The New York Botanical Garden, New York

    Green spaces and buildings host already known works from the Kusama repertoire. Indeed, the three long tulips of Hymn of Life: Tulips display their variegated petals in the middle of a flowerbed. On the shimmering surface of a pond float and slide the 1,400 silver steel spheres of the composition Narcissus Garden , presented for the first time, without official invitation, at the Venice Biennale in 1966. The five flowers extraordinary plants from My Soul Blooms Forever grow, with their feet in the water, among the lush plants of the large greenhouse. In Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees , it is the trunk of the trees that is adorned with a red coat with white polka dots.

    Photograph of the work Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden , 1966, exhibition Kusama: Cosmic Nature (2021), The New York Botanical Garden, New York. Photography: Paul Clemence, Architecture Photography

    Photograph of the work My Soul Blooms Forever by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, My Soul Blooms Forever , 2019, exhibition Kusama: Cosmic Nature (2021), The New York Botanical Garden, New York

    There is also a surprise with several major new features. In the middle of a pond stands a giant flower with a sunny yellow heart and a bright red corolla, entitled I Want to Fly to the Universe . The glass cube of a new Infinity Mirror Room , Illusion Inside the Heart , sits in the middle of a lawn, reflecting the surrounding vegetation and revealing its seasonal changes. Finally, the highlight of the show, a Dancing Pumpkin , half-pumpkin, half-octopus with a height of 5 meters, gives the impression of moving its eight immense yellow tentacles with black polka dots on the square in front of the Conservatoire Haupt.

    Photograph of the work I Want to Fly to the Universe by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, I Want to Fly to the Universe , 2020, exhibition Kusama: Cosmic Nature (2021), The New York Botanical Garden, New York. Photography: Paul Clemence, Architecture Photography

    But who is Yayoi Kusama?

    Maybe you don't know Yayoi Kusama. So you've never crossed paths with him. Because once you meet it, in flesh and blood or in image, it’s impossible to forget it! Wearing a neon red wig with a square cut and wide bangs, sporting a wardrobe of ultra-bright colors and the eternal polka dot pattern, she is the embodiment of the art she practices and claims since its beginnings: singular, assumed, exuberant, hypnotic, enigmatic, obsessive.

    Portrait photography Yayoi Kusama Portrait of Yayoi Kusama. Photo:文部科学省ホームページ, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

    An extraordinary biography

    Youth in Japan: family conflicts, hallucinations and artistic birth

    Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Japan, more precisely in Matsumoto, a provincial town located in the heart of the Japanese Alps, on the island of Honshu, about 200 km northeast of Tokyo. She grew up in a privileged family, earning her income from running nurseries and selling seeds. Despite the household's financial well-being, the little girl did not experience a happy and easy childhood. Her father becomes increasingly infidel and her mother, suffering from an irascible and derogatory temperament, forces the youngest of her children to spy on her husband and his mistresses.

    Very early on, as if to escape these family problems, Yayoi Kusama developed a pronounced taste for the visual arts and expressed herself through them. The little girl draws and paints the flowers that populate the fields in which she accompanies her loved ones to work. From his excursions on agricultural lands and in greenhouses, his deep and unchanging love for nature and flora, especially pumpkins, was born.

    But this artistic expression is also nourished by these hallucinatory visions, which she experiences for the first time around the age of ten. “One day, after seeing the tablecloth on the table with a pattern of red flowers, I looked up to the ceiling. There, everywhere, on the surface of the window as on that of the beam, stretched the shapes of red flowers. The whole room, my whole body, the whole universe will be full of it.” 1

    At the age of 19, against the advice of her parents, who were opposed to pursuing an artistic career, the teenager chose to attend an art school in Kyoto. “In the midst of a toxic family like this, the only thing I lived for was my art.” There she studied traditional and modern Japanese painting. The strict academic education she received and the rigid hierarchical relationships between master and disciple that she deplored pushed her to continue her path as an autodidact. She organizes her own exhibitions, always very extensive, in several locations across the country, notably in her hometown in 1952 where she presents some 270 original works.

    The New York surge

    The young woman dreams of freedom and elsewhere. She flew to the United States in 1957. Seattle was her first base; However, it was New York that attracted her: she moved there the following year, in 1958. There she rubbed shoulders with a number of artists already renowned or in the making, including Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenburg, or again Donald Judd, a visual artist and art critic friend who helped him put together several exhibitions.

    It was during this New York period, throughout the 1960s, that she explored her many desires and capacities for expression, and gave birth to emblematic creations:

    • his series of Infinity Nets paintings , “infinite nets”, a sort of tight mesh, which arise from the repetition on the canvas of the same pattern of small monochrome loops;
    • his Accumulations , visual compositions made of protuberances sewn in soft fabric, of variable size, piling up and superimposed on everyday objects and furniture – armchair, sofa, chair, etc., such as Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show ( 1963);
    • its enclosed and immersive environments called Infinity Mirror Rooms , rooms whose walls completely covered in mirrors infinitely reflect objects collected on the floor or suspended from the ceiling – lanterns, luminescent balls, fluorescent pumpkins, etc. ;
    • her “ happenings ”, “ naked demonstrations ” or even “ body festivals ”, public performances in which she puts herself on stage, naked and/or covered in polka dots, alone or accompanied, by animals or hippie dancers, sometimes using the technique body painting (“body painting”).

    Photograph of the work Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show , 1963. Photography: daryl_mitchell on flickr ,CC BY-SA 2.0

    In a little over a decade, she went from being an immigrant with very precarious living conditions to being a recognized artist of the New York avant-garde , participating in the pop art and psychedelia movements .

    Return to basics, oblivion then global recognition

    After this intense episode of life, Yayoi Kusama decided to return to Japan permanently in 1973. Four years later, greatly tested psychologically, she chose to be interned in a private psychiatric institution in Tokyo. She lives there and continues to create there since then.

    Portrait photography Yayoi Kusama painting Portrait of Yayoi Kusama. Photography: u dou on flickr ,CC BY-ND 2.0

    Somewhat forgotten until the end of the 1980s, she gradually returned to the forefront: the first female representative of Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993, she was exhibited at MoMA in 1998.

    Since the 2000s, its popularity has continued to grow. At the end of 2011, the Center Pompidou in Paris offered the first French retrospective dedicated to the Japanese artist, highlighting 150 of his creations created between 1949 and 2001. The Tate Modern in London hosted this same exhibition the following year. , from February to June 2012. It is also Kusama that the famous British museum will choose to highlight to celebrate its twentieth anniversary 8 years later, in May 2020, with the presentation of two of its Infinity Mirror Rooms .

    In October 2017, the city of Tokyo inaugurated a museum in his name, totally dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of his art.

    At the top of the most popular female artists in the world

    “Kusama is for the fourth consecutive year the female artist who generates the highest turnover on the planet”, this is what the world leader in data banks on the quotation of the music market declared in 2019. art, Artprice. It then ranks the Japanese artist in first place in the top 20 female artists with the highest auction proceeds. For Kusama, this represents more than $102 million in 2018 2 .

    In 2021, she occupies second place in this ranking, after Joan Mitchell 3 . A contemporary of Kusama, this American painter, born in Chicago in 1925 and died in Paris in 1992, is particularly known for her immense abstract and colorful canvases, including the work La Grande Vallée V , sold for more than $14 million in 2020 4 .

    The weight of peas for Yayoi Kusama

    Yayoi Kusama is a multidisciplinary artist. Painter, sculptor, visual artist, she is also a writer – she has written 19 novels and books of poetry –, a director – she has made several films – and a stylist – she has her own fashion company, Kusama Fashion Company Ltd, created in 1968 , and collaborated in the 2000s with major fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, under the direction of Marc Jacobs, or Lancôme. Through all these forms of expression, Yayoi Kusama externalizes her personal suffering and exorcises her inner demons.

    A “psychosomatic” art

    Few artists are inclined to openly share what sparks their creative impulse. Yayoi Kusama has always recognized it: everything was born from her hallucinations. Both terrified and fascinated by the manifestations of her mental illness, she made this psychological fragility a source of inspiration and creative energy.

    His childhood in a conservative and dysfunctional family; his youth in a traditional, patriarchal Japan marked by the horrors of the Second World War; her difficult rise among the misogynistic world of New York art in the 1960s. So many traumas which marked her forever and diffuse into her artistic work.

    The art she practices is, according to her, “psychosomatic”, a kind of catharsis through which she confronts her mind and her body with her anxieties and tries to free herself from them.
    Her aversion to sex pushes her to multiply phallic forms in her works.
    His refusal of conventions and his opposition to the Vietnam War encouraged him to organize provocative, libertarian, antimilitarist and pacifist happenings.
    His fear of seeing his individuality disappear in the immensity of the Universe and his paradoxical desire to become one with his environment give rise to his concept of self-obliteration , or self-annihilation. This is what leads him to build his Infinity Mirror Rooms , closed rooms where mirrors dissolve the boundaries of reality and the play of light gives the illusion of a dizzying infinity in which everyone can get lost.

    Photograph of an Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room . Photograph: Pablo Trincado from Santiago de Chile, Chile , CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

    The “priestess of the pea”

    Having become his favorite language tool, the polka dot also participates in Yayoi Kusama's concept of obliteration.

    Covered with polka dots, the objects blend together and merge. They no longer have clear outlines to distinguish them from each other. As in his evolving Obliteration Room , a room whose walls and furniture are initially immaculately white but in which visitors are invited to stick a colored sticker wherever they wish, ending up invading the entire decor.

    Photograph of the work Obliteration Room by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room , 2015, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photography: interestedbystandr on flickr , CC BY 2.0

    The polka dots obliterate spaces, bodies and beings, erasing their singularity. But they also provide the feeling of being part of a whole, of being among the World. It is to fight against this ambivalent anxiety that she feels in the face of this notion of erasure that Yayoi Kusama repeats this polka dot motif all the time and everywhere. A way to ward off fate. Annihilation through limitless accumulation. The fusion between his person, his life and his work, within the immense Universe.

    “I had within me the desire to prophetically measure the infinity of the immeasurable universe from my position, by showing the accumulation of particles in the meshes of a net where peas would be treated as so many negatives . […] It is by sensing this that I can realize what my life is, which is a pea. My life, that is to say a point in the middle of these millions of particles that are the peas. » 1

    Photograph of the work Dots Obsession by Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession – Love Transformed into Dots , 2017, The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington. Photography: Ron Cogswell on flickr , CC BY 2.0

    There is still so much to say about Yayoi Kusama, an extraordinary woman and artist. We hope that this article will have allowed you to (re)discover her and will also have made you want to delve into the details of her intense life and her sprawling work. And if your artistic sensitivity vibrates at the sight of its numerous creations, perhaps you will enjoy taking a look at those of our pattern designers . They too create original patterns, inspired by nature and travel, certainly less psychedelic than Yayoi Kusama but just as pleasant to look at!

    Useful information :

    Written by cd

    1. Yayoi Kusama . Centre Pompidou.
    2. The 20 most successful women in the Art Market . Artprice.
    3. These women who make abstraction . Artprice.
    4. The 10 most valued artists on the art market in 2020 . Art Shortlist.