The unforgettable, remarkable life and work of Yayoi Kusama, a visionary who makes one believe in the real power of art

Yayoi Kusama: the unforgettable, remarkable life and work of Yayoi Kusama, a visionary who makes one believe in the real power of art

German Celant

Yayoi Kusama has had a life–a good part of it spent as a voluntary resident in a psychiatric hospital, her days devoted to working in her nearby studio–so emotionally resonant and touched by artistic genius it makes one’s jaw drop. If ever there were someone who shows how art can help us survive that which life serves us, it is Kusama. Here she talks with art critic and curator Germano Celant about five decades of transforming her compulsions, hallucinations, terrors, and obsessions into happenings, environments, sculptures, and paintings that are among the most beautiful and riveting works on earth. And for Kusama, who finds herself more in demand than ever, there is so much more to come.

GERMANO CELANT: Hello. How are you?

YAYOI KUSAMA: Hello. Who’s calling?

GC: It’s Germano Celant. I am senior curator of the Guggenheim and a good friend of Claes Oldenburg.

YK: He’s a very wonderful artist. I look to him very much.

GO: I remember Claes talking about you having a studio above his and that your radio was very loud all the time. [laughs] So, I wanted to start by asking you about your beginnings as an artist.

YK: I began painting when I was 10. I would draw on the shore of a river covered with thousands of rocks. I would play and create sculptures out of those rocks, like installation pieces, or I would draw portraits on paper. I recall these ecstatic moments, like an illusion, seeing all those polka dots scattered around. As I grew up I continued to concentrate on drawing thousands of polka dots, and through that process I felt I was able to explore my life and look to the future. I worked on these pieces all day, every day. I kept on presenting my works with polka dots or infinity nets, and this caused a great sensation in Tokyo. With those works I aspired to leave my footprint as a leading artist in the history of the world. And then I created pieces in which a desk, the floor, the ceiling, and the walls were covered in polka dots. There was a sense of obsession in these works. And I reached a point where I wanted to see more than just the art scene in Tokyo and try myself overseas, so I decided to go to New York. When I did my “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show” I covered the gallery with a repetition of the same portrait. It was as if the pictures were echoing each other, but then, as you looked on, everything came together as one. So many people came for the opening–Andy Warhol was there. He was so excited and asked me, “Yayoi, what is this?” Once I explained it to him he was very impressed and said, “Fantastic.” Several years later, Andy did a work in which he pasted posters of cow faces all over the ceiling and walls. I could tell it was clearly influenced by my “One Thousand Boats Show.” I have great respect for Andy and consider him one of the greatest artists–he was really ahead of his time. But I also believe I was a pioneering artist, introducing a great amount of new ideas to the artists and painters in New York.

GC: In the beginning it seems that you wanted to create a net of images–a hallucinatory vision of dots and grids–like a fisherwoman casting a net across the universe.

YK: I think you are talking about my self-obliteration, obsessional art: the idea of covering everything in our lives, everything in the universe, and using my polka dots and nets to obliterate it all. Then I started exploring a new field, where I used primary colors or mirrors to reflect the accumulation of hallucinations I had since my childhood as well as the idea of repetitive visions. A year later I created a work, a memorial to love, titled “Endless Love Show.” It was a giant environmental installation show I did. This piece, as well as the life I’m living, represents my manifesto of love. All those light reflections are caused by mirrors, and don’t these tens of thousands of reflections represent the beauty of us human beings? I started using electricity and mirrors to express those ideas, and I still use these mediums today. I did a show around half a year ago at Mori Art Museum, where 520,000 people came to see the 10 pieces. It was very shocking to many art critics and museum curators, but I think the show started another movement, like a ripple effect.

GC: In your art you’ve never made any distinction between object, body, furniture, dress, canvas. You never considered the difference between painting and landscape and environmental art. Everything was possible to paint and cover with your signature, including the underlying sexual and food obsessions in your work.

YK: I had a phobia about sex, and, in order to overcome and release myself from those fears, I made an uncountable number of phallus-shaped pieces. Donald Judd, who lived upstairs from me, would come help me make them-sewing and stuffing thousands of pieces–and then I put them on all kinds of things, from chairs to boats to dishes to cups and what not. I presented these pieces as obsession rooms, compulsion furniture, forms of patience, or sex and food obsessions, and labeled my art “psychosomatic art.” That show was titled “Driving Image Show.” It caused a huge sensation when it opened in New York. Later I toured the “Driving Image” show in the U.S. and Europe, and it was exciting to see so many people touched by it. What makes me happiest is that Andy Warhol, who founded Interview magazine, and for whom I have enormous respect, is still considered one of the great artists. I also find that a lot of people have been chasing after me while I am still creating new pieces. I currently have a touring exhibition traveling to five major museums in Japan, and I hear that young people are excited about my works, which makes me extremely thrilled.

GO: You’ve used a lot of food imagery in your works, like pumpkins and big beans. What does food symbolize for you?

YK: For example, I made sculptures by putting macaroni all over items and then spraying them gray. These works symbolize my food obsession, because I fear that we must eat machine-made food for the rest of our lives. It’s the same thing with sex. Just the thought that you are going to have sex thousands of times makes me shiver, too. I am kind of like a string. I develop one idea and keep building on it in various ways. Now I’m creating pieces with themes such as mass production, repetition, obsession, compulsion, impulse, dizziness, infinite love without fulfillment. I consolidated many of these concepts in “Peep Show,” and it’s titled that way because the viewers can see everything in the room, yet they cannot touch anything. I am always repeating this process in my art, challenging myself with new mediums.

GC: The repetitive images that you project in your work have been interpreted in different ways. In Europe you were regarded as part of the monochrome universe, associated with Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Yves Klein. Yet in America you were considered more a part of the pop-art movement, with Oldenburg, George Segal, and Warhol. As an unofficial participant at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966 you created a piece consisting of 1,500 mirrored balls, and you were dressed in a kimono–what a striking contrast between the abstraction of your work and your being dressed like a traditional Japanese artist. How do you feel about your work being interpreted in so many ways?

YK: Well, I created a large environmental sculpture titled “Narcissus Garden” and started selling it piece by piece. The staff at the Biennale were shocked to see me doing this and told me not to sell my art there, so I asked them, “What’s wrong? This is pop art.” There were lines of people waiting to buy, and I think the staff were really confused. When the show at the Venice Biennale was done, I also made badges which said “Love Forever” and gave them away to people.

GC: In the late ’60s you started doing a lot of political happenings. You did the orgy “happening,” the homosexual wedding, the nude dance pieces on Wall Street, in front of the United Nations, and the Statue of Liberty. So it seems that you wanted to change the universe not only with your visions of dots and nets but also through a political stance against the government, against repression, against gender, and so on. Do you feel, as an artist, that it’s important to take a stand on politics?

YK: Yes. I am one of those artists who take a political stand. In fact, I think I am at the forefront. I had been pursuing the themes of peace and love long before John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And still today my heart aches to see wars happening all over the world, including Iraq. I think more and more people in the art world are advocating peace today. I have been fighting for love and peace for 40 years, and I am still continuing to send my message with my art pieces and words. I am dedicating myself to working on art every day now in hopes for a peaceful world in which everybody loves each other, moving toward a better future. I hope from the bottom of my heart that this wish will come true. I have had this wish since childhood, which is “Love Forever.” It’s 2005 now, and I am feeling more powerful and enthusiastic than ever about creating a lot of good work. I have been pushing this message since I went to New York in the ’50s, and now I’m just using different types of materials and new technologies for this. I am still expressing the same message to the world. I will continue to do so–on a larger scale–from now on too, and I want to keep presenting art to the world as Yayoi Kusama and encourage people to ask themselves questions like, What is peace? and What is love? This is my sincere hope.

Germano Celant is the artistic director of the Prada Foundation in Milan and senior curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum. Above: Yayoi Kusama’s No. Green. No I, 1961, oil on canvas, 70″ x 49 1/8″. Photo: Adam Reich. Collection of the Baltimore Museum. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Translation by Ayako Akeura and Hisham Bharoocha.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.

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