Yayoi Kusama is an enigma, a pioneer and a legend. Born in Japan in 1929, she moved to the United States in 1957 and took the art world by storm, expressing her surreal point of view in everything from collages to fashion shows to anti-war protests. She moved back to Japan in 1973, checked herself into a mental hospital in 1977 and has been living there ever since.
How could one describe Kusama’s work? Strange would be an understatement. Polka dots and phallic shapes abound. It’s erotic without exposing so much as a nipple, and disturbing without a trace of gore. It showcases the visceral, impulsive images that lurk in our subconscious and pop up at the most inappropriate times. Through her work, Kusama forces us to face these underlying parts of ourselves and accept them as part of the human condition.
We had the pleasure of visiting the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, scheduled to run from July 12 to September 30, 2012, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. There are more mind-bending curiosities than we have the space to write about. To honor the great pop artist and inspire others to turn on and drop in to her exhibit, we have compiled a list of 5 of the weirdest things you’ll find there.
1. Heaven and Earth (1991)
This installation is a confusing cornucopia of stuffed muslin tentacles attached to fabric-laden wooden boxes. At first glance it looks like an angry mob of upside-down octopi. There is something angelic in the fact that it is completely white, yet disgusting about the sheer number of tentacles frozen in mid-wriggle. One nude person, for instance, may not be particularly shocking, but a writhing mass of intertwined naked bodies may cause one to lose their appetite.
2. “Kusama Fashions” (1970) – Phallic Dress, Phallic Handbag and Phallic Shoe
We can be sure in saying that Kusama has a fascination with bodily organs. In this set of pieces, she covered what otherwise would have been regular clothing in dozens of potato-like phalluses. They burst out of every seam and orifice in the way that sexual thoughts repetitively insert themselves into the human mind. Kusama reminds us of our own lewdness with a calm, encouraging gaze.
3. Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1966)
This is where the makers of The Ring must have gotten their ideas for the scenes of the movie’s murderous videotape. Kusama’s famous art film is a menagerie of seemingly unrelated scenes with a few common motifs. In some scenes Kusama wears a kimono and covers people, animals, trees and more in various stripes and polka dots. Other scenes are tinted deep shades of red and are hard to see, focusing on nude figures preparing indiscriminate objects on what appears to be a studio set in fast-motion, or close-ups of a very menacing bundle of bananas. In the background is a cacophony of unsettling sounds, muffled twangs of psychedelic guitar, discordant piano and a low, watery hum like amniotic fluid in a womb. It is definitely worth an open-minded look, if you don’t mind having a nightmare or two later that night.
4. Fireflies on the Water (2002)
Reminiscent of “Kusama’s Peep Show” from 1966, this exhibit starts with an unassuming door through which the visitor must pass. The world he or she walks into is a stellar illusion: 150 small lights hang suspended in the dark, surrounded on all sides by mirrors and water. The room seems to extend out to an enormous, open space, invoking a sense of solitude in a never-ending galaxy of stars. In this room the visitor may reflect on the fractal nature of the universe – we realize that behind every door is another universe, with infinite doors leading to exponentially more universes, each with their own endless numbers of doors… and so on
5. “Kusama at Age 10” (1939
Though it is perhaps the smallest and least extravagant part of the exhibit, the photos of Kusama in her younger years are entrancing. The one that stopped us in our tracks was of Kusama, aged 10, holding a bouquet of flowers in traditional Japanese garb. Those mysterious elements of her are all there – her characteristic bangs, her fearless straight-on stare, and the dark intensity in her eyes. The young girl’s body and innocent flowers pose a stark contrast to the stoic face of a woman who is wise beyond her years. Through this haunting portrait we see that genius is not learned; it is inherent from birth.
By Melissa Hebin