Yayoi Kusama has spent most of her career covering surfaces with dots and painting nets with many holes. Chosen images and objects repeat and aggregate in her works. She describes the act of creating as something taking over her hands. Her artwork is her therapy, and her keen interest in politics is answered by her belief that making art can resolve conflict by reducing barriers and connecting to the universe.
Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano to a family of wealthy landowners. When she moved from Japan to the United States in 1957, it was not her intent to join any particular artistic movement, but rather to escape the confines of a family that suppressed her creativity and a country that did not understand her art.
When she arrived in New York, Kusama began creating works that employed many of the same techniques and materials she continues to use today, painting and making environmental sculptures out of mirrors and electric lights. Before and after polka dots came into and went out of fashion, Kusama utilized the pattern, which mirrors the nearly lifelong hallucinations she has suffered that cause her to see her surroundings covered in spots.
In the late 60’s, Kusama staged what she called Happenings or Body Festivals, which involved her painting groups of nude models with different colored dots and placing them in different locations around New York City. These Happenings, at times, served not only as art, but as anti-war protests. In this role, Kusama referred to herself as a high-priestess. When asked in a 1999 interview with Bomb Magazine, why she chose to make her models nude, Kusama replied, “Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe. This is magic.”
She has since given her viewers more agency in this act. In 2002, Kusama created an art project for children titled The Obliteration Room, which was displayed at Australia’s Queensland Art Gallery and invited the children to themselves add colorful dot stickers to the white walls and furnishings of a miniature house. The piece later resurfaced in her work, inviting adults to do the same. In 2012, Kusama collaborated with Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs to create the “LOUIS VUITTON × YAYOI KUSAMA Collection”, which allowed buyers to cloak and accessorize their own bodies in polka dots as they saw fit. However, every Kusama work beckons its viewer to give oneself up to something larger than oneself.
Currently, on view at David Zwirner, New York are two shows from Kusama, showing across three locations. Festival of Life is on view at the gallery’s two West 19th Street spaces. Infinity Nets is showing at the gallery’s space on East 69th Street.
At 525 West 19th Street, two new Infinity Mirror Rooms and a polka dotted installation piece showing for the first time in the United States are drawing lines around the block. The moment you step on line, you have given yourself up to a larger process. The wait is over an hour long, and you may or may not enjoy the inevitable company of your nearest linemates, with whom—unless you go with a larger group—you are then, eventually, welcomed through the door and ushered into Infinity Mirrored Room-Let’s Survive Forever (2017).
The door closes. Inside, the entire interior is lined with mirrors. Differently sized spheres of stainless steel are positioned on the floor and hanging from the low ceiling. Everything inside is multiplied. I somehow felt claustrophobic in an infinite space, cast into eternity with the unwanted company of strangers. Although it was an uncomfortable few minutes, the experience was quite an interesting one to grapple with. Seeing a peeved expression on my own face numerous times over made me seriously contemplate the value of letting go.
The second Infinity Mirror Room, titled Longing for Eternity (2017), is one the viewer may look in on through any one of three peepholes. Inside, your face is mirrored from various angles amid miniature light bulbs that fluctuate in color in a hexagonal pattern that is mirrored endlessly. Detached from my body, my head was existing in an exciting world of its own.
With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever (2011), the remaining work showing at this space, is an airier installation piece. The viewer steps into a semi-enclosed area where the walls, floor, and the oversized flower-potted tulips that reside there are all painted white with large red polka dots. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland slipping into an off-scaled alternate reality.
At 533 West 19th Street, the second half of Festival of Life unfolds. Inside, the viewer finds oneself surrounded by two rows of large and vividly colored paintings from Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series—sixty-six paintings in all line all four walls of the main room. Each painting measures 76 ⅜ x 76 ⅜ inches (194 x 194 cm) and viewing the top row requires tilting one’s head back.
Straying from her routine pattern of dots, the My Eternal Soul pieces display a variety of shapes, lines, and even figurative elements. Numerous forms which resemble tiny creatures seen under a microscope appear throughout the paintings as does a pattern of repeated eyes. Faces emerge from each other and bodiless heads recall the experience one has peering into Longing For Eternity, while shapes surrounded by curving line-rays resemble celestial bodies and evoke the vastness produced by Kusama’s mirror pieces.
Uptown, in the calm of the gallery’s Upper East Side space on 34 East 69th Street, hang Kusama’s Infinity Nets—the newest pieces in a series she began back in the 50’s. Each of these works has the power to envelope its viewer.
Standing in front of one is like entering a new environment, which each visitor will experience differently. Viewing Infinity Nets [WFCOT] (2017) and Infinity Nets [GASAV] (2017), I felt myself to be a bee—at one moment in a giant honeycomb and at another nestled in the petals of a giant yellow daisy. In front of Infinity Nets [BNDBS] (2017), I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean where sun glistened off rippling waves. Infinity Nets [FWIPK] (2017) was like looking at the sky and staring into the sun—an action that will cause anyone to see bright spots before one’s eyes.
Kusama’s work can leave one feeling at times microscopic and at other times one with the universe. She challenges us to look both at and beyond ourselves as she herself explores internal, external, and eternal concepts and environments. Kusama continues to use the things that plague her to continue setting her mind at peace. And for us and the rest of the world, she hopes her work will do the same.
Yayoi Kusama: Festival of Life and Infinity Nets
November 2 – December 16, 2017
David Zwirner New York
525 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
533 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
34 East 69th Street
New York, NY 10021