People are lining up around the block to see this 88-year-old Japanese woman’s strange and beautiful work
I hate lines. I go to a restaurant and there is a 20-minute wait. I’ll go back another time. Lines at a check-out counter. I’ll be back another time. I drive to a movie and there’s a line to get in. I’ll be back another time. But I found an exception. She is the artist Yayoi Kusama, whose work is currently on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.
An art phenomenon is happening right in Chelsea with up to five-hour waits wrapped around three city blocks. People camping out all night. I waited in line an hour and a half. I arrived close to two hours before the opening. It was, as they say, worth the wait.The show contains three rooms of exhibits and a gallery of Kusama’s paintings called “My Eternal Soul.” Each of the paintings is filled with vibrant colors in abstract forms and playful odd figures in huge formats. The paintings wrap around the room and serve as a reminder of the free-spirited hippies, peace and love, not to mention the line waiting outside with people gathered collectively for a purpose. The “Infinity Mirror Room” had stainless steel balls attached to the ceiling and floor and mirrors reflected a carnival atmosphere where you felt both close and distant to the people in the room. You were lost. You didn’t know reality from fantasy. You felt disoriented, but still pulsating with life. You were confused but organized. You were part of a shared happening.The other gallery room, “With All My Love For The Tulips, I pray forever,” contained large potted tulips painted in red polka dots as were the floor, ceiling and walls. I felt in awe. I later dreamed I was spinning around the room. In other words, I was able to fly. How could I be scared and happy at the same time?
At age 88, Yayoi Kusama has no plans to retire and sometimes works day and night while in her studio in Japan, a block from the psychiatric hospital where she lives. “If not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago,” Kusama said. While sitting in her wheelchair, she paints on canvases laid on top of tables. At one time in her life, her psychiatrist informed her she was painting too much and that was exacerbating her illness. Despite suffering from mental illness, Kusama has produced a wide variety of art, including paintings, performance art, installations, sculptures, books, films, fashion and design.
Kusama has suffered from hallucinations, obsessions, and severe anxiety since the age of 10. She relates her mental illness symptoms to the physical abuse she received from her mother. Science has indicated there is a link between childhood abuse and psychotic and bipolar symptoms. From the doctors’ and Kusama’s reports, she probably suffers from bipolar disorder with psychotic symptoms, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. There is some debate whether, in 1977, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo, or she was committed. Either way, she has lived there for forty years. She often writes in her room at night, and in the morning goes to her studio for the day.
When she was hallucinating as a child, art became Kusama’s sublimation and coping mechanism. The repetitiveness, the madness to alleviate the pain. She developed a fear of sex, witnessing her father’s sexual escapades. “I don’t like sex. I had an obsession with sex. When I was a child, my father had lovers and I experienced seeing them. My mother sent me to spy on him. I didn’t want to have sex with anyone for years. The sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me,” Kusama said.
Her soft sculptures and furniture covered in phallic symbols helps Kusama deal with the pain and memories.
In 1957, Kasuma left Japan for the United States. Her mother said, “Never set foot in this house again.” Kusama, naturally upset, destroyed hundreds of her works. Kasuma became involved in the New York avant-garde movement during the 1960s. It was not easy for her during these early days in New York, as she dug through trashcans for food, was without heat, and slept on a door. This lasted for about 15 years, what Kusama called “a living hell.” She got involved in the various protest movements. Among her stunts was to offer to sleep with Richard Nixon if he stopped the war. In 1973, depressed and broke, she returned to Japan where people were hostile toward her and she had no connections in the art world. She ended up in the mental hospital.
In 2008, one of Kusama’s “infinity net” paintings sold at Christies for $5.1 million, a record for a female living artist. Kusama’s work is in demand and has been exhibited in museums worldwide. She has developed a cult following. Kusama has won many prestigious art awards. If one suffers for their art, Kusama is living proof. Yayoi Kusama, way to go! You deserve the fame, recognition and wealth. I know that’s not why you’re doing your art. But God bless you because you are a phenomenon and bring joy to us!