Self-Obliteration
Clouds
Between Heaven and Earth
Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization)
Sex Obsession
The Moment of Regeneration
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Seven decades of artistry bring to light questions on eternity, life, the universe, and our place in it

While she initially trained in traditional painting, in 1957 an aspiring artist named Yayoi Kusama left her home country of Japan to immerse herself and hone her craft in New York’s avant-garde scene. Finding early recognition in the western art sphere, she returned to Japan in the 1970s, an unknown entity once again. Persevering through mental illness and the struggles of fighting for the recognition of others, Kusama has since become a prolific Japanese contemporary artist. She is a perfect representation of the creative period that laid the foundation for her success, a living embodiment of the free expression and explorative nature at the heart of the avant-garde movement. Through a career spanning more than seven decades, Kusama’s works always returned to the same themes of infinity, accumulation, radical connectivity, the cosmos and mortality.

Art as a source of tranquillity

Upon entering the expansive exhibition hall at M+ in the West Kowloon Cultural District, visitors are met with a panorama of Yayoi Kusama’s. While much of her work reflects on grand philosophical concepts, Kusama also spent a considerable amount of time gazing into herself. Through the myriad self-portraits done in a variety of styles, you are given a glimpse into Kusama’s shifting psychological and emotional experiences over the years. With her obsessive-compulsive disorder, Kusama used her art as an outlet and source of tranquillity. Shown in her self-portraits, Kusama’s innate drive towards repetition is also presented in her more abstract pieces as she touches upon musings of infinity.

Kusama polka dots

A pattern Kusama found herself drawn to time and again was polka dots. In the early 1970s, she linked this bubbly imagery with a sense of universal oneness, stating, “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment — part of the eternal — and we obliterate ourselves in love…” This is especially highlighted in her not-so-subtly titled installation, Self-obliteration. Depicting the domestic scene of a dinner party, it is made otherworldly through an overwhelming presence of polka dots on every surface. Varying in colours across mannequins and furniture, what is usually seen as separate and distinct blends together in a peculiar cohesion. Kusama firmly believed that the destruction of the self gave room for the possibility to reconnect with others and the world as equals. To her, the dots represented an accumulation of particles; all we were was one and the same.

Ephemeral and disturbing

Examining both the ephemeral and disturbing, Kusama’s analysis of the natural order spread out into more imaginative installations. Comprised of almost one hundred mirror-finished floor sculptures, the embossed stainless steel that makes up her scenic Clouds is a calming collection of sleek, reflective blobs in various organic shapes and sizes. The natural forms of the piece give the impression of viewing clouds from above, enveloping the audience in a field of boundless reflection. Its minimalist design also stands in stark contrast to her other works, hypnotising the viewer with its natural motion.

Perceive the world in new ways

Having highlighted particular standouts of Kusama’s exhibition, a single article does not do her work justice. With over two hundred works featured in her retrospective at the M+ Museum, the Japanese talent invites the audience to delve into their favourite medium — be it paintings, sketches, sculptures or performances — and see the vast possibilities of our universe through her eyes. From her early, harrowing portraits as a teenager growing up during World War Two to her abstract musings on balance and eternity, Kusama gives a physical presence to her metaphysical explorations. In doing so, she invites us to perceive the world in new ways.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn