After spending the past four decades in a psychiatric hospital, her name written out of art history, Yayoi Kusama became an art-world phenomenon in the age of the selfie
In the past five years, more than 5 million museum visitors have queued – and queued some more – for a brief glimpse of the work of Yayoi Kusama. The 89-year-old Japanese artist, who for the past 41 years has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital, has had large-scale solo shows of her work in Mexico City, Rio, Seoul, Taiwan and Chile, as well as major touring exhibitions in the US and Europe. Last year, she opened her own five-storey gallery in Tokyo. The Broad museum in Los Angeles recently sold 90,000 $25 tickets in an afternoon to its Kusama exhibition, causing the LA Times to ask if the artist was now “Hotter than Hamilton?”
As the numbers have gone up, so the time that each visitor can spend in Kusama’s installations – her immersive “infinity mirror rooms” of coloured lights, and painted pumpkins and polka dots that reflect for ever – has gone down. In 2013 the David Zwirner gallery in New York was restricting time slots to 45 seconds for each viewer. Five years on, visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, who queued for more than two hours, were down to a brisk half a minute.
How did this happen? The most obvious single word answer is “Instagram”. People – hundreds of thousands of them (see #YayoiKusama or #InfiniteKusama) – photograph themselves in Kusama’s unique spacey wonderlands and share the results. Many modern art galleries are currently exploring the idea of exhibition as uploadable social media “experience”. Kusama – in developing an idea she first presented in New York in 1966 – has already cornered the market.
This autumn sees more new work on display at the Victoria Miro gallery in London – only two years since its last open-all-hours event. The exhibition coincides with the UK release of a film about the artist’s extraordinary life, Kusama: Infinity. The story of the making of the film is indicative of the ways Kusama’s fortunes have soared. Its director, Heather Lenz, first tried to get the idea off the ground in 2001. She pitched the story to every production company she could think of and was told the same thing by all of them. Her idea was “too arty”, Kusama had “no name recognition”, and “no one wants to watch a movie about a woman artist”. No longer.
Speaking on the phone last week, Lenz acknowledged that the smartphone-friendly nature of the work is clearly part of the attraction – but said that should only lead to a deeper understanding of Kusama’s career.
“Most people have seen her work on Instagram,” Lenz says, “but when they hear what she had to go through to achieve the success that eluded her for so long, they really connect with that. We did a few screenings and though most people knew the work, out of an entire audience only two people knew for example that she lived in a psychiatric hospital.”
Lenz’s film reveals how Kusama’s life has been if anything more estranging than her obsessive work, and the ways in which one informs the other. It does it no harm as a tale of perseverance and triumph that it falls into neat chapters of Kusama’s self-transformation.
In the first of these, Kusama’s childhood, the curious seeds of the art world’s favourite selfie-craze were sown. Kusama was born into a wealthy family in rural Japan that managed extensive plant nurseries, growing varieties of violets and peonies and zinnias to sell all over the country. From a very young age Kusama would carry her sketchbook down to the seed-harvesting grounds and sit among the flowers until, as in a fairytale – of the Grimm kind – one day she experienced the flowers crowding in and talking to her. “I had thought that only humans could speak, so I was surprised the violets were using words. I was so terrified my legs began shaking.” This was the first of a series of disturbing hallucinations – she calls them depersonalisations – that haunted her childhood.
Those episodes seem to have been connected to the dislocations of her home life. Kusama grew up in a deeply unhappy family. Her father was a philanderer and her mother sent Kusama to spy on him with his mistresses, though when she reported back, she recalls in her autobiography, “my mother would vent all her rage on me”.
Her mother tried to stop Kusama from painting – tearing the canvas from her hands and destroying it – insisting that she studied etiquette in order to make a good arranged marriage. Kusama kept on drawing. It was her way of making sense of her hallucinations: flowers from the tablecloth that enveloped her and chased her upstairs; sudden bursts of radiance in the sky. “Whenever things like this happened I would hurry back home and draw what I had seen in my sketchbook… recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes,” she recalls.
Many of the motifs that have become her trademarks were, apparently, rooted in this practice. The first pumpkin Kusama saw was with her grandfather. When she went to pick it, it began speaking to her. It was the size of a man’s head. She painted the pumpkin and won a prize for it, her first, aged 11. Eighty years on, her largest silver pumpkin sculptures sell for $500,000.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Kusama was 13, she was conscripted to work in a factory that produced fabrics for parachutes. In the evening, she painted intricate flowers over and over. The local paper, in a notice of her first exhibition, reported her producing 70 watercolours a day.
Seeing stills of Kusama’s early life in Lenz’s documentary – her hair cut straight across her forehead, photographed among flowers – makes a stark and moving contrast to footage of the artist at work in her studio now. The same slightly bulbous eyes peer out from under a red wig as she joins up her dots with a magic marker, chewing her lip like a child. “To me,” Lenz says, “Kusama’s childhood trauma was instrumental in her work not just because of her difficult family, but also because of her society and the nightmare of the second world war.”
Lenz came to understand these pressures more keenly because while making the film she herself married into a Japanese family and learned the history of her husband’s grandfather, killed by the bomb at Hiroshima, and her mother- and father-in-law who had an arranged marriage. “That gave me a greater understanding of her childhood,” she says. “The expectations of the time for a young lady, an arranged marriage, kids. Kusama boldly made the decision to leave Japan and go to New York while that was a pretty shocking thing to do.”
That second chapter of Kusama’s journey began when she first encountered the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a bookshop in Matsumoto, her home town. She found O’Keeffe’s address in New Mexico and wrote to her for advice about how she could make her way in the New York art world, sending some of her own intricate watercolours of surreal vegetal forms and exploding seed pods. O’Keeffe replied, puzzled at first why anyone, let alone a young woman in rural Japan, might want to do such a thing, but the curiosity developed over several years to a kind of mentorship. “In this country an artist has a hard time making a living,” O’Keeffe replied. “You will just have to find your way as best you can.”