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Yayoi Kusama: Courtesy Ota Fine Arts

Features / World Mental Health Day 2018

It’s hard to think of an artist whose association with mental health is as great as Yayoi Kusama’s

It’s difficult to name an artist more speculated or talked about than Yayoi Kusama. Her work is able to encapsulate the feeling of hallucination or happenings through swarms of spots, and consistently the narratives of her artworks have centred around mental health.

The artist is also a living trope of the whacky, tortured artist stereotype that appeals to today’s voyeuristic culture of wanting to know everything, about everyone, through the internet. Not to mention the fact that Yayoi’s Infinity Rooms indite mass selfie-mania plastered throughout social media. During her 2016 exhibition at Victoria Miro, amongst the overwhelming queue for the installation All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins, the girl in front of me refused to go in with her mum because that would ruin her selfie.

These incessant selfies commodify the work. It’s become an accessory to the cause of social media and detracts from the artist’s innovation. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen Yayoi’s spots act a background on Instagram? The artist’s work on social media is becoming so ubiquitous it’s bordering on mundane, a far cry from the artist’s intention to outwardly express her inner hallucinations.

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Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, 2018

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Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, 2018

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Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, 2018

Yayoi’s early life is well-known by the the public who’ve followed the artist’s career. Traumatised by the desperate surroundings of post-war Japan, raised by an authoritarian mother and dispirited father, Yayoi has experienced mental health issues from being a child, including obsessive-compulsive behaviour and hallucinations. She explains this in the 2005 publication of Into Performance, quoted saying, “I grew up hearing repeated lectures about the dangers of making friends with the impure opposite sex. Thus, even when I reached the stage of puberty when most girls are interested in the opposite sex, I could not rid myself of an obsession with sex. My phobia of men and my obsessive fear of men became increasingly severe, resulting in my extreme fear of anything phallic. It reached the point where I was assaulted by countless phallic visions.”

One interpretation of this quote from a psychoanalytic point of view, attributes the causes of these symptoms to the Electra complex, where a girl unconsciously opposes her mother in favour of a dominant love for the father. Alternatively, Yayoi’s compulsion to repeatedly depict multitudes of similar forms can also be seen as a result of the “assault by countless phallic visions.” 

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Yayoi Kusama Installation view: The Moving Moment when I went to the Universe

Compositionally, the artist’s work is filled with repeated symbols that hint to biological matter. Squiggles, amoeba-like organisms and plasma-like structures fill the artist’s mind consciously or subconsciously, which flood large-scale canvases and installations. This subject matter, along with the infinite hordes of cell-like spots echo our fundamental biological make-up as well as Yayoi’s childhood obsession with sex and in turn, reproduction.

On the surface, Yayoi’s immense creative output seems deeply therapeutic and intuitive to her sense of self-expression. However, there is also something to be said in how she uses her external expression of art as a means to further understand her inner-self. In the 1960’s Yayoi discussed this process, through the work Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field, openly with an interviewer: “I put a lot of phalli inside and outside a boat because I had a great fear of and disdain for such things as sex and the phallus. I used it as an art therapy to cope with my obsessions.” To this day, the artist returns back to art as a way to visually express the feelings she possibly couldn’t make sense of as a child.

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Yayoi Kusama: Pumpkin, 2018

The phalli made for Yayoi’s work are sewn together using red-dotted fabric. By utilising the craft of sewing — a traditionally female method — the artist deconstructs an element of her fear, feminising the act of the phalli’s creation. Despite an evident fear of the sexual, which goes against a human’s animal instinct to preserve our family lines, Yayoi’s work conveys a powerful thrive to survive. Regardless of a fear of sex, she establishes her legacy within the statement work. As a result, she creates aesthetic explosiveness.

Outside of her sculptural work, it’s Yayoi’s paintings which leave a lasting impact on the viewer. This is particularly noticeable in The Moving Moment When I Went To The Universe currently on display at Victoria Miro gallery. The show displays 20 wonderfully engrossing paintings, all executed in one sitting by the artist, reflected in the naturally flowing and instinctual qualities of the work.

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Yayoi Kusama Installation view: The Moving Moment when I went to the Universe

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Yayoi Kusama: Garden of Women in Blooming Youth, 2018

Yayoi’s work is significant as a form of art therapy and the artist’s output has often been oversimplified due to her ties with mental health. There are also vast cultural differences that set apart the artist’s work and the combination of this “double dynamic” is one posited by psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell in Judith Rodenbeck’s Women’s Art Journal, Vol.33. The text explains how by “examining the iconography of a series of drawn, painted, and written self-portraits to prove for the consistency of traumatic resonance,” the psychoanalyst pinpoints how there is also, "iillegible marks of vast cultural difference.”

In the Western art world, Yayoi’s work presents a sense of otherness, also seen through the exoticisation of Japanese culture. Throughout modern art, Western artists have appropriated Asian art, paying its origins little to no credit for the technique and artistry they conceived. Van Gogh was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese woodcuts. He was supposedly revolutionary in his painting style, erasing the use of shadows in his paintings creating a sense of flatness that was unique to art at the time. Additionally, Aubrey Beardsley and other members of the art nouveau movement based their overall aesthetics on graphic, black and white Japanese illustrations. 

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Yayoi Kusama Installation view: The Moving Moment when I went to the Universe

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Yayoi Kusama: Flowers That Speak all about my Heart Given to the Sky, 2018

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Yayoi Kusama: Flowers That Speak all about my Heart Given to the Sky, 2018

There is no doubt that Yayoi’s work offers an added element of attraction due to her racial background, and perhaps this results in a more convoluted understanding of the work. The exoticised lure of Japanese culture, and its unfamiliarity to the West, plays a big part in the understanding of Yayoi’s work.

Nevertheless, from any contextual standpoint, Yayoi Kusama’s work remains a force to be reckoned with. Although the work’s relationship with mental illness is a strange pull from the press, the artist’s work is simultaneously intellectual and logical. Her immense popularity in the West which is stemmed in psychological intrigue should also be understood as a point of cultural difference, and valued as such.

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Yayoi Kusama: The Moving Moment when I went to the Universe, 2017

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Yayoi Kusama Installation view: The Moving Moment when I went to the Universe

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Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, 2018