A love letter to Yayoi Kusama and her chambers of reflection

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Everything I know about intimacy I owe to Yayoi Kusama. The artist speaks to emotional and physical connections with such incredible delicacy, her work dancing between weight and lightness, vulnerability and strength. With each encounter with Kusama’s moving pieces, I gain more and more respect for her life and her discussion about the liminal human state. 

No one speaks to the unbearable lightness of existence better than Yayoi Kusama. An artist plagued by external rejection and internal depression, Kusama has experienced 90 years of intense emotion and expression. Her turbulent past involving hallucinations and sexual fear is encompassed in her signature polka-dot pieces, with the dots splayed across wide surfaces, swallowing up any sight of reality. Through Kusama’s career, the weight of her traumatic childhood prompted a suicide attempt. With awareness of the labyrinth that is Kusama’s inner workings, as well as the convoluted composition of her past, the emotions her works illicit beg for deeper readings. 

The sentiment of lightness that Kusama desires is mirrored in her iconic infinity rooms. As she plays with temporality and space, Kusama is able to embody the attitude of a playful child while complicating the viewer’s perception of reality through the warping of boundaries. Most of Kusama’s works are rooms made entirely of mirrors, with light displays or items filling the floor and reflecting an illusion of a never-ending fantasy-scape. 

“Phalli’s Field,” a 1965 founding work for Kusama, places hundreds of plush, stuffed fungal sculptures on the floor of an infinity room, the red dots stretching beyond their physical bounds in the reflection. I visited the exhibition, revived by the Louis Vuitton Foundation on the outskirts of Paris, and upon entering the room alone I instantly let out a laugh. The shock of the immense space Kusama was able to create in such a small setting gave way to the sensation of pure elation and lightness. Paired with white fluorescent lights and a white plastic floor, the room housed little to no shadows, producing a floating feeling. 

For me, what made “Phalli’s Field” so hypnotizing was not what was reflected on the walls, but rather what was found upon further investigation of Kusama’s life. There exists a photo of the artist in her younger days, clad in a red full-body leotard, lying serenely across her stuffed phallic figures. She appears doll-like, hung in the suspension of her own distorted fantasy space. Whether or not Kusama had agency in her pose, her deep connection to each of her pieces is enough to draw viewers into her world, sharing an ounce of the depth of her emotions. 

As one steps into a Kusama infinity room, there is a balance between exhibitionism and intimacy. Exhibitionism from the partial invasion comes with entering the hollowed-out body where Kusama houses projections of her deepest trauma, the mirrors offering a reflection of the viewer’s own voyeurism as they see themselves inside the exhibition. This self-involvement, however, also places one within Kusama’s world, as her work envelopes the viewer with her chamber of reflection and its sound of utter stillness.  

When Kusama created “Phalli’s Field,” she was 12 years away from her voluntary admittance into a psychiatric hospital in 1977. Kusama still resides in the same hospital in Tokyo, spending most days working on projects in a studio across the street. This residency issued forth a new period of life for Kusama — as she noted in her recent documentary, entitled “Kusama: Infinity” — during which she can continue her art in a healthy space. Kusama’s life choices are remarkable for their bravery and introspection.

Kusama’s pursuit of art in general is evidence of her tenacity, as her family reportedly pushed for her to stop drawing to prepare instead for an arranged marriage. Kusama continued drawing, however, as her artistic obsession was a way to process her hallucinations. Seeking a mentor, she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe in the United States, who prompted her to make the rebellious, albeit necessary, move. Kusama faced internal tension as her mental capacity was tested with New York’s intense rejection of her artwork seemingly based on her gender and ethnicity, but still she kept at her work until she began to receive recognition. Kusama now stands as one of the most influential artists internationally, bridging minimalism and pop art. 

Now at the age of 91, Kusama continues to create delicate installation spaces and fanatical polka-dotted pumpkin sculptures. Her seemingly simple signature symbol and design give way to a deep, undulating personal history that is deserving of our attention and respect. The manner in which Kusama plays with space and sensation to build relationships and proximity between artist, viewer and art piece works wonders; the pure emotional response from witnessing her works is something to behold, and something that will last. 

Kusama communicates the complications of human intimacy, with the self and with the other, through pieces that are at the forefront of the art world. We may commend Kusama for being a female artistic icon, but to stop there is to fall short of recognizing her contributions to her field and her negotiation of essential emotions in hopes of understanding the human condition and the surrounding world. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].