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Yayoi Kusama to infinity (and beyond)

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 29, 2021 5:00 am Updated Mar 29, 2021 11:24 am

It’s hard to pick the most heartbreaking moment in Kusama: Infinity, the 2018 documentary on the legendary Japanese “dot” artist, now in her 90s, living in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Shinjuku near the art studio where she still creates daily.

Is it the moment when she tries to crash the 1966 Venice Biennale, setting up a noncommissioned “Narcissus Garden” of mirror balls which she sold to curious passersby for $2 (“You can buy your narcissism”), only to be ejected by Biennale authorities?

It was a subversive statement from a marginalized Asian woman artist, who asked the Italians, “Why can’t I sell my art like ice cream and hot dogs?” (The public still got fantastic images of Yoyoi, lying amid a bed of mirror balls in a red leotard.)

Is it the moment when her parents and basically everybody in her native Matsumoto, Japan rejected her, calling her an embarrassment and a scandal after her ’60s nude body painting art event, “Self-Obliteration”?

 At the 1966 Venice Biennale, Kusama set up a noncommissioned “Narcissus Garden” of mirror balls which she sold to curious passersby for $2.

Or was it the depression and numerous suicide attempts after watching white male artists race ahead of her in the New York art scene of the ‘60s?

Claes Oldenburg arguably stole his famous “soft sculpture” concept from her earlier stitched phallic vegetable furniture; Andy Warhol “borrowed” her mass-produced wallpaper idea from the 1963 “One Thousand Boats” show and responded with cow wallpaper and endless repetitions; while American-Greek artist Lucas Samaras appropriated her 1966 infinity mirror room exhibit (“Peep Show”) for his later mirrored spaces.

By 1972, Kusama was pretty despondent, feeling the art world had left her behind. She checked into a mental hospital, and even this helped her work flourish: collages pushed her vision of infinite repetition to new, insta-made creations from magazine cutouts.

 “I come up with ideas and my canvas cannot keep up with me.” One of the collages Kusama created during her first institutionalization in the ’70s.

It had all started on a farm in Matsumoto, where her prosperous family made money selling vegetable and flower seeds. Her mother snatched away her canvas and paints at an early age (art was not a suitable vocation for a Japanese woman; marriage was), but she recalls a childhood incident of wandering through a field of flowers one day, suddenly feeling herself “obliterated” amid her rapidly expanding surroundings. A series of dot hallucinations followed.

The event seems to have also informed her artistic vision, which soon took on endlessly repeated fields of dots and, by the mid-’60s,  “infinity nets,” undulating dot patterns enmeshed in swirls of impasto paint.

She was clearly glimpsing a way out of conventional art viewing: no longer would art patrons control their own “infinite perspective” when viewing art, à la Renaissance paintings; they would become engulfed and enraptured by a space implying infinity.

Kusama’s work ethic was prodigious, rivaling Warhol’s. Some speculate it was the desire to finish her work furiously, before it would be “snatched away” by her disapproving mother (and critics).

The teenage Kusama, still trapped in Matsumoto, and traumatized by her father’s marital affairs, wrote to Georgia O’Keefe for advice as a fledgling artist: O’Keefe told her to find her own way, but suggested New York was the place to be.

By 1963, she headed there alone, without contacts, toting a collection of her work (she had already destroyed some 2,000 of her own paintings, declaring she would do “much better” work later).

Kusama’s work ethic was prodigious, rivaling Warhol’s. Some speculate it was the desire to finish her work furiously, before it would be “snatched away” by her disapproving mother (and critics).

Kusama: Infinity paints a vivid portrait of a young, female Asian artist amid a world of white males, bustling their way ahead. As full of vision — and a healthy respect for self-marketing — as she was, she made little headway. Instead, her ideas seeped into other contemporary artists’ work.

It was all too much for Kusama, who took up residency in the mental institute by the mid-‘70s. “How many times did I think about putting a knife to my neck, seeking death?” she reflects. “I collected my thoughts, and got up again.”

In the documentary, we see Kusama today, with her trademark hot-pink wig and piercing eyes, laboring over a new canvas: lines mapped out in black Sharpie, set ablaze with endless dots and scratches (“I come up with ideas and my canvas cannot keep up with me”). She finishes one work in about three days.

 New work from “Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul,” the 2017 exhibit at the National Arts Center in Roppongi. The show included a “dot room” to create your own infinite dot space.

Many of these works were presented at “Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul,” an exhibit my wife Therese and I attended in 2017 at the National Arts Center in Roppongi.

Seemingly based on the recent Sharpie drawings, they’re brightened up with fields of Day-Glo acrylic colors. The titles are no less enigmatic (“The Silvery Universe,” “Souls that Flew in the Sky,” “I Hope the Boundless Love of Humanity Will Envelop the World”), but now embrace a new happiness of spirit, a lightness and playfulness that seems set loose in her later years, when the world has finally caught up with Yoyoi Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama, the documentary informs us, is now the top-selling living female artist in the world.

After triumphant solo shows at Venice Biennale in the ‘80s, the Tate Modern in the 2000s, and an ongoing retrospective at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, social media has launched her images further into infinity, catching on with a whole new generation of selfie-happy Instagrammers.

She is, the documentary informs us, now the top-selling living female artist in the world.

Gone is the terror implied by those early Infinity Nets, the endless fields engulfing her soul. “I wish for life’s bright sunshine,” she concludes. “I want to live forever.”

With perhaps one more cherry on top: in 2002, the Matsumoto City Museum of Art opened, creating a permanent space devoted to their native daughter. “I was finally able to bring home the crown,” Kusama says in the documentary, without a trace of irony or rancor.