In the sixth and final article of the series, our art critic, Malcolm Storer, examines and dissects some of the supreme masterpieces of Western Art, scrutinising the artists who made them, and why, when and where they were created.
‘Infinity Mirrored Rooms’ by Yayoi Kusama
I want to end this series by looking at the life and work of a true modern great. A woman whose conceptual masterpieces have both inspired as well as sanctified. A woman whose obsession with infinity drove her to the brink of insanity, and beyond.Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama defies categorisation. Painter, poet, sculptor, performance artist, she is perhaps best known for her dot paintings and brightly coloured pumpkin sculptures. She once said, “Our earth is but one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos.”
She was born in the city of Matsumoto, Japan, in 1929. A dreamy, precocious child, from an early age she experienced hallucinatory episodes where nets, spots and flowers overwhelmed her visual field, connecting and obliterating everything around her. These ‘visions’ would go on to form the basis of her art. She used the creative process as a method of self-healing, a way of escaping her neurosis by translating and enacting the infinite repetitions that plagued her. As she once told an interviewer, “This was my epic, summing up all I was. And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.”
It was while studying at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts that she became inspired by American Abstract Expressionism. Desperate to escape what she saw as the conservative straight jacket of Japanese art, in 1957 she fled to New York and soon became part of the flourishing avant-garde scene. During the 60s she organised a series of ‘happenings’ in Central Park, the most famous of these was a naked tableau where Kusama painted multi-coloured polka dots onto the bare flesh of her followers. During these early years of struggle, she became a beacon to artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, who later went on to achieve superstar status.
Her first work of any note was her ‘Infinity Nets Paintings,’ vast canvases without beginning, middle or end, characterised by a rippling arrangement of dexterous swirling arcs and pulsating hoops. Creating such repetitious work took its toll on the mentally fragile Kusama, prompting a suicide attempt. Exhausted, convinced her career was going nowhere, she threw herself from the fourth-floor window of her tiny apartment. Luckily for the art world her fall was broken by an unfortunate cyclist!
Next came a series of what she termed ‘soft sculptures’. These groundbreaking works saw her cover sofas, tables and ladders with sewn and stuffed protuberances, many of which had sexual connotations. This from a woman who was so opposed to the war in Vietnam she wrote a letter to President Nixon offering to sleep with him if he put an end to the conflict. The president declined.
Fearless to the point of eccentricity, in 1966 she gate-crashed the Venice Biennale in a flagrant act of self-promotion. Dressed in a gold Kimono she shocked onlookers by installing hundreds of mirrored spheres outside the Italian Pavilion and selling them for two dollars each, before security stepped in and closed her impromptu show.
In the late 70’s Kusama finally gained recognition in Japan. She returned to her homeland and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo. She is lived there ever since, visiting her studio daily to grapple with infinity, a subject that has stayed with her throughout her long and distinguished career. She once described her creative process like this, “I was always standing at the centre of my obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me.”
The pinnacle of her output has to be her dazzling Infinity Mirror Rooms, mind-blowing mini universes consisting of floor-to-ceiling mirrored tiles and hundreds of twinkling LEDs. It is an immersive experience like no other. Instead of gazing up at the night sky and pondering its timeless beauty, the viewer is transported to the heart of the cosmos, becoming part of the complex whole, the very fabric of life.
And this is the crux of Kasuma’s art; an art which allows us to see beyond ourselves, to leave behind our ordinary everyday worries and simply marvel. What better antidote to the Coronavirus pandemic — where the world feels more and more constricting and we experience life over the rim of a mask — than to step inside the mind of this extraordinary Japanese lady.
Sometimes it is the crazy ones who get us to see the truth.