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Polka Dotted Liberation

A black canvas towering at over 6 feet explodes with what looks like millions of tiny white circles. Large, goofy-looking ceramic pumpkins adorned with red and white spots spread themselves sporadically on the gallery floor. An abstract film plays in the background, while an old Japanese woman in a bright red wig recites ominous phrases directly into the camera.

I experienced these strange yet compelling art pieces in artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Life is the Heart of a Rainbow” exhibit in the Singapore National Gallery last year. Known for her explosions of polka dots, playful colors and surprisingly existential themes, Kusama’s art is recognized around the world. For the artist herself, creating art is a coping mechanism that frees her from the psychological constraints of mental illness. Through repetitive patterns and intricate displays, Kusama’s art allows the viewers to experience a form of that liberation by enticing heightened senses for those who step into her art.

Born to a farming family in rural Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama’s early affinity for art was not supported at home. Despite this, the young artist learned to use her art as a way to cope with early signs of neurosis. Kusama began to experience vivid hallucinations at age 7 and turned to art to help cope with the experience. Hallucinations of talking pumpkins and a world covered in spots caused Kusama to use art as a mechanism to cope.  

“Whenever (hallucinations) like this happened, I would hurry back home and draw what I had just seen in my sketchbook,” Kusama said. “Recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes. That is the origin of my pictures.”

The artist eventually escaped this environment in the 1960s when she fled her home country to pursue her dream of becoming a famous artist in New York City. Once she arrived, Kusama’s struggle to gain notoriety created an extremely stressful environment that worsened symptoms of neurosis. She dedicated all of her energy, resources and money to art, causing extreme psychological and emotional stress. In New York, Kusama lived in poverty, sleeping on a door for a bed and eating meals foraged from dumpsters.

During this time, Kusama’s fierce dedication to her art resulted in her first iconic pattern, the Infinity Nets. Often times immense works — sometimes over 30 feet of canvas — Kusama painted small, connecting strokes that created tiny empty holes, akin to a fishnet. The sheer immensity and scale of these works finally garnered the attention Kusama yearned for in her art. Soon after arriving to the United States in 1959, Kusama produced “No. F,” a well-known piece from her Infinity Net series. Oil on canvas, the work demonstrated large scales of repetition in the form of small, repetitive strokes that created a net-like image. For Kusama, the methodical strokes provided release from psychological strain she was experiencing, but also allowed the viewer to immerse herself in a peaceful, monotonous pattern that almost pulsated on the canvas.

Kusama’s love for patterns and repetition would turn out to be a constant theme in later works, such as her obsession with polka dots. In Kusama’s 1967 creative film titled “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration,” clips of the artist show her wearing polka dotted, one-piece costumes and painting spots on canvases, trees and nude bodies. For the self-proclaimed “High Priestess of Polka Dots,” the small round markings serve to “obliterate” confines of space, social restrictions and psychological obstacles.

“I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe,” Kusama said.

Kusama also experimented with other mediums such as sculpture, photography and even fashion. In 1965, Kusama showcased “Phalli’s Field,” an installation that consisted of cloth-made, phallic-shaped soft sculptures painted with red dots. Placed in a mirrored room that created infinite reflections, the installation gave the illusion of an endless field of the spotted shapes. Kusama also participated in social discussions through staged public demonstrations that promoted antiwar messages and other social issues. In her 1969 “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead,” Kusama painted dots on performers’ nude bodies and photographed them in the New York Museum of Modern Art. In her later years, Kusama also collaborated with world renowned fashion icons like Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.

Kusama has been described as being impeccably able to manage her mental illness through her art. A history of neurosis, schizophrenic tendencies and acute anxieties caused Kusama to check herself into a mental institution in Tokyo four years after returning to Japan in 1973. Since then, the now 89-year-old Kusama commutes to a studio every day and creates art on a strict 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. work schedule. Even in her old age, Kusama relies on the creation of art and rigid repetition as a form of therapy and a necessary means of survival.

“I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” Kusama said in her autobiography.

In today’s information age, Kusama’s art perpetuates an infinite nature as her legacy is immortalized on the internet. People’s desire to share on social media allows for Kusama’s eye-catching work to spread easily. Although some might not know her by name, many can recognize Kusama’s iconic polka dots or pumpkins just from internet exposure. Celebrities like Katy Perry and Adele have already shared Kusama’s art on their own social medias. Despite being older and in a mental institution, Kusama’s dedication to creating art will cause her to remain relevant even after she is gone. Kusama’s ability to create sublime works that surround the viewer in a liberating experience will continue to attract audiences for generations to come. •

by: Adriana Rezal

Photography by: Nicole Bolar

Models: Danny Kim and Gabby Tan

HMUA: Tiffany Tong

Stylists: Susy Seo and Rebecca Wong

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