A “ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE,” wrote Gertrude Stein in her poem “Sacred Emily” in 1913. Could the same be said of a dot? When is a polka dot not just a dot? When used in the hands of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to form the signature style of her distinctive paintings, sculptures and installations. Central to Kasuma’s work since the late 1950s has been the circular motif—either a polka dot or the negative space within a looped mark. First experienced during childhood hallucinations, they have been her obsessions ever since. This has led her to create psychedelic works that include fantastic biomorphic forms and a dazzling array of optical effects. Like many other women artists of her generation—Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spiro—Kasuma, now in her 80s, has had to wait a while for full recognition. This exhibition at Tate Modern establishes her importance not only as an artistic conduit between Orient and Occident but also throws up a multitude of questions about the relationship between mental health and the production of art.
Kasuma left her native Japan—and the mental health hospital where she resides—for the first time in 12 years to attend the opening of this show. Unlike her last retrospective in Los Angeles which focused solely on her production during her time in the U.S., this one encompasses her entire oeuvre as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker and writer. Confined to a wheelchair and dressed in a red wig, with matching lipstick and a polka-dot dress, she obviously relishes the attention. As well as her signature dots, her soft Oldenburg-like sculptures incorporating umpteen phalli, her naked interventions and a spectacular new mirrored installation with colored lights conceived especially for this show, the Tate exhibition also includes early watercolors such as the surreal and visceral Lingering Dream (1949).
But Kusama’s work cannot be disentangled from her mental health problems and early childhood trauma. Admitting herself to a psychiatric hospital on her return to Tokyo from America in the early 1970s, she has lived voluntarily on an open ward since 1977, commuting back and forth on a daily basis to the studio she has built across the street. Her doctors have suggested that it’s by channelling her “illness” in this way she has kept it in check. As psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell suggests in her catalog essay: “To become a beautiful flower (an experience Kusama had when young) instead of a miserable child involves psychically eradicating the child.” Kusama’s work abounds in images of unconscious eradication; her white Ryman-like “Infinity Nets” imply not just a void but a protection from that void, and her mirrors reflect both a sense of otherness and emptiness. Highly original and idiosyncratic, her paintings and objects follow in the tradition of other outsider artists such as Adolf Wölfli and the work of patients collected by German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, which had a significant effect on the language of the Surrealists. For Kasuma the very act of making art is an emancipation from her hallucinations; her compulsive repetitions transform the psychotic into the abundant and the wondrous.
Despite her apparent interest in the body (expressed in her naked hippie happenings of the 1960s and her Self-Obliteration, an orgiastic film of the same period that depicts her dabbing a naked male torso with polka dots), her “accumulations”—sofas, chairs and other objects covered with hundreds of handmade and white-painted phallic protuberances— don’t only speak of a fear of sexuality but, with their turd-like forms, imply an obsession with the abject. More recently she has produced a large body of acrylic paintings on canvas in a limited range of brilliantly unmixed hues that incorporate iconographic motifs and tap into the sort of archetypal images more often found in aboriginal art. All the work is done herself without the aid of assistants, which is why, she says, she is in a wheelchair. “I’ve been doing it physically—it’s hard labor—throughout my life.”