Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most prominent living artist, was born in 1929 into a world which didn’t encourage self expression. Especially for women. Her wealthy and conservative family didn’t approve of her being an artist and although she insisted on following her dream and stuck with it the traditional Japanese way forward to becoming an artist was not one which she was suited to. She had a fragile and obsessive temperament which meant that she needed to go her own way and find her own path rather than have her skills honed as a disciple of an already accepted master. After finishing her training she took off to New York, found what she needed in the wildness of the contemporary arts scene there and became a prominent and influential part of it, finding great support and friendship. It was an enormously productive time, full of freedom and abandonment to her vision, although she began to overtax her strength and her health suffered. This ill health finally led her back to Japan in 1973 and in 1977 she checked herself into the Seiwa hospital for the mentally ill where she has lived ever since. Not that this has stopped her working. She has a studio near the hospital and works for long and intense hours there still creative and productive at the age of 82. She has said, “If it were not for Art I would have killed myself a long time ago”. Her work has been her joy and salvation. She has placed herself and her inner life at the centre of everything that she does, pouring herself into it and working out her obsessions within it, taking inspiration from her hallucinations. It’s an inspiring life story of someone who has been a successful working artist for sixty four years so far and made wonderful things in spite of obstacles which would have stopped most people dead in their tracks.
Amazingly the current major retrospective at Tate Modern is the first time her work has been exhibited on a major scale in Britain. I found out about her very late when I looked into one of her magical mirrored boxes at Tate Liverpool and found myself in a whole new world. I was completely enchanted. The Tate Modern exhibition is a clear and well chosen selection of the work that she has done, allowing you to follow the path of her career. There is a huge range of work and there were some sculptures that I didn’t really get, but there was plenty that I did love and respond to. Some of the early drawings, collages and watercolours are intensely beautiful and meticulously worked, with jewel like colours and they were probably what I liked best of the works on paper. She has used mundane everyday objects in collage making a virtue of their repetitive designs, colours and patterns and there is a large work made up of closely packed small identical air mail stickers which I found very satisfying to look at.
There is an astonishing video made at a happening in New York in the sixties which should be required viewing for any young artist who imagines that they are being wild and controversial today. It is rough, grainy, erotic and totally out of control. The absolute antithesis of those early drawings which came out of the finely worked controlled Japanese artistic culture that she had been trained in.
There is a strange and unsettling space in which an ordinary living room has been covered in fluorescent stickers which seem to float in mid air while Kusama speaks from a television set. The fact that the spots seem to float in mid air rather than being attached to anything makes you wonder exactly what you are seeing.
Her most accessible and beautiful works are her mirrored infinity rooms. She has made a new one for the exhibition. You stand there completely transported into her world seeing reflections of yourself and the small coloured lights hanging around you in the darkness disappearing into the distance. I found it every bit as magical as that box which I looked into at Tate Liverpool, only now I was allowed inside. The chance to stand in that space alone would have made the visit worthwhile
A life well lived then, against all the odds, full of self expression and creativity. Proof if ever there was one that the saying “talent will out” is true. A woman to admire and respect.