I see a painting in four panels with a shimmering surface of fluorescent pink dots and a watery green background. The colours contrast violently and make focusing difficult, the surface fizzles like a visual effect, like a migraine. The pinks, blues and greens vie for space and oscillate as though this is anything but a two-dimensional surface. There are bluer areas which allow my eyes to rest, but overall, nothing provides a focal point in this searing expanse. The pattern of brush strokes, a net pattern (not a dot pattern, I see as I look closer), extend right to the edge of the canvas and no one area is prioritised over any other. The expanse of the canvas has been worked from all edges and I imagine this painting, called Transmigration, can be viewed from any direction.
I stood before this painting almost a decade ago when it was on display in Brisbane. It was specially commissioned by Yayoi Kusama for ‘Look Now, See Forever’, a solo exhibition of her work at QAGOMA. I remember the shimmering surface being hard to look at. The absence of a focal point was unsettling. Nevertheless, I was quite mesmerised, the colours were attractive and how exactly they produced the oscillation effect was intriguing. I could see a labour of loops, or nets, across the surface of the panels and my fingers itched to pick up a brush.
Or at least this is what I think I thought, looking at the painting now and reading my thoughts on the exhibition from 2011/12.
I wrote that ‘Kusama attempted to replicate the pattern of the water that she saw from her plane window. Tightly looped brush strokes construct patterns without subject matter, the colours and process of construction seeming to be the artist’s only concern.’ It was 1958, she was flying to New York, aged 29, where she would begin the Infinity Net paintings, some of her most well-known and iconic.
I disagree with my past self, though. Now I see not a lack of subject matter, but an exploration of themes pursued unceasingly that become a subject in themselves. Repetition of motifs and of the act of producing work in unlimited series have become some of the key hallmarks of Kusama’s work. She paints every day, with a pre-prepared canvas flat on the table so there really isn’t an intended top or bottom. Her artworks often combine dichotomous themes, as here in Transmigration the undulations of the ocean are made unbearable by the searing pink. Look for these combinations of happiness and grief, trauma and laughter, anxiety and joy, and you will see Kusama delving into the human experience in such an intriguing way.
It’s often noted that Kusama attributes her work to a mental illness or hallucinations, caused by a volatile family environment in her childhood. She said in a 2017 interview that “The way my family was and how my parents hurt me in my childhood influenced me deeply. As I grew up I studied the existence of life and human beings and I established myself as an artist on my own.”1
And when asked how her art is an expression of her mental illness, she replied: “Luckily, I was able to see a psychiatrist who had an understanding of art when I was young enough. Since then I have struggled to cure my illness, though in my case, the cure was in creating art based on the illness. Developing creativity was my cure.”
In seeking to understand her hallucinations through creative acts of replication, Kusama reveals the subject of her work:
My desire is to measure the infinity of the unbounded universe from my own position in it with polka dots. How deep is the mystery? Does infinity exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions, I want to examine the single dot that is my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I have kept up my determination to return to eternity by means of art.
The writhing oscillations of Transfiguration are not dots but our individual, and often visceral, responses when we look at it contain existential questions, like the ones Kusama asks. How do we understand our experiences of this world, as a single dot among billions? Do you see what I see?
Polka dots were among the first patterns Kusama utilised to try to understand her world and they are her most recognisable motif. What might seem like an absence of subject matter at first glance, is in fact a deep engagement with the human condition.
The most famous example of this is the Obliteration room, originally created for the Children’s Art Centre at QAGOMA during the 2002 Asia Pacific Triennial, it has been recreated across the world.
In 2011/12 when I saw Transmigration I also saw the Obliteration room. Handed a sheet of stickers at the door I entered a once-white space with domestic furniture and looked for somewhere to place my different coloured dots. Visitors before me had begun using the dots in three-dimensional ways and dots trailed between objects, not just on surfaces. Dots half-peeled off furniture and soft surfaces. Dots stuck to my shoes as I walked through. Being in a room with others engaged in a similar unified and joyful purpose, however, was perfectly exhilarating and something I came to associate with visits to QAGOMA.
The obliteration part of the Obliteration room is another key aspect of Kusama’s exploration and treatment for her hallucinations. The polka dot is endlessly suggestive of many subjects, like the individual in the collective, but the process of obliteration itself takes this further, and we are subsumed by joyful colour. A seemingly naïve and automatic inclination to combine colours for their sensory effects characterises Kusama’s art, as raw and often positive emotions fill the space, overwhelm our bodies or subsume the things they come in contact with. What does it mean to give ourselves over entirely to this powerful tide of sensation? Titles like The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens, The Flowers that Bloom at Midnight, A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe show us how Kusama is ‘measuring the infinite of the universe’ by building a world to deal with the one she finds herself in.
The room itself is a deliberately banal space, and it has taken on new depths of meaning during Covid Times due to this contained domesticity. I can imagine when this work is next staged it will have added weight after we’ve lived through successive lockdowns. I find the reference to repetition (of days stuck inside) combined with the participatory nature of the work (strangers adding dots together) quite resonant of the present.
Kusama’s profile as one of the world’s most prolific and well known artists emerged since the 1990s, though her art making up to this point placed her at the centre of what we think of as key 20th century developments in art. As the curator for Kusama’s recent TATE show says in the video above:
I think Kusama is now seen alongside people like Murakami or Damien Hirst, or Jeff Koons as a kind of globally branded artist. Her spots are ubiquitous, and they are instantly recognisable. They are on the face of the London tube map at the moment. Everywhere we go we see...to the biennials and triennials across the world, you see big Kusama installations. But what is also important to recognise is she really does fit into art history, and she was there in late Surrealism, she was there at the birth of Pop. She has a relationship to Minimalism, she’s a real key practitioner in the beginnings of performance and action art. So she’s very much somebody who is an insider, but she was never attached to any one movement for very long, so she’s always...also somebody who kind of is an outsider. She moves in and out of the kind of principal avant-garde moments of the mid to late twentieth century.
Kusama was born in 1929 and began making art at a young age, citing her early years on a family nursery sorting seeds as part of the inspiration/trigger for her dots obsession.2 At the time New York was living in the shadow of Abstract Expressionism (see Artwork 1), a movement which had thrust the city to the centre of the art world. Kusama’s influence was to be profound as she defied definition, experimented and captivated everyone with her eccentric persona. In 1973 Kusama returned to Japan having reached burnout point and her profiled waned in the anglophone world until retrospectives of her work brought her to international attention, particularly the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993. During this exhibition she began selling the silver spheres which made up her installation Narcissus garden for the equivalent of $2. She wasn’t even an official artist at the Biennale; critiquing the institutionalisation of contemporary art before it was cool. Her work from the 1970s and 80s has become the focus of recent exhibitions in 2017 which show clearly levels of experimentation and innovation that made her almost too radical for 1960s New York.
Given how monumental Kusama’s career is, this entry is really only capturing one dot. Maybe that one dot can indicate others.
In hindsight my memory of visiting the ‘Look Now, See Forever’ exhibition is also quite personal. Here I am standing in front of Narcissus garden, with each of the shiny orbs blurred in the background thanks to my brother’s photography skills. (Bokeh effects were big back then.) While we haven’t lived in the same city for more than a few months at a time, visiting the gallery when ever we happen to be in the same one is one of my favourite activates.
Even through the pandemic Kusama’s works have been exhibited and in some ways she is more ubiquitous than ever. A fact I think she would relish. In the This Week in Art podcast three curators speak about her recent shows in London, Berlin and New York. It’s especially interesting to see how different audiences across the world experience Kusama-rama. Listen here.
Slow Looking is about thoughtful consideration of art. Transmigration has prompted me to reflect on participatory artworks and the way that mental illness (to use Kusama’s framing) can lead to a life of creative production and expression. She is a singular dot in a universe of her own creation.
1 Nicholas Forrest, ‘Yayoi Kusama: on Life, Infinity and a Major Retrospective’, Blouin Artinfo, Sept 2017, 97.
Looking at personal lives and public selves in the work of Tracey Emin. This edition discusses strong themes originating in the artist's life, take appropriate caution.
Mildura Art Centre's recent exploration of histories and identities in the south and west, curated by Jane Polkinghorne and Gareth Hart