When Yayoi Kusama was a child in rural Japan, she would take her sketchbook down to her family’s seed-harvesting fields and draw. One day, sitting amongst the peonies and violets, the flowers began crowding over her and talking: “Each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were talking to me.”
This was the first of many disturbing hallucinogenic experiences that would haunt Kusama throughout her life. But rather than be consumed by her illness – later diagnosed as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder – Kusama channelled it as a point of empowerment, using it to inform much of her obsessive, relentless and visionary artwork, which has propelled her into becoming one of the world’s most popular living artists.
Recently, Kusama’s immersive installations have become an unparalleled art-world blockbuster – commodified by a selfie-loving generation who queue for hours for a 30-second slot in one of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. Such popularity is particularly notable considering she was largely ignored through much of her working life. Her ideas were often stolen by male artists who used them as launchpads for their own careers while she slugged away unrecognised in New York’s male-dominated art world.
In 1973, exhausted by her lack of critical and commercial attention, she returned to Tokyo, but found herself similarly unpopular with Japan’s conservative art establishment. By 1977 she had become increasingly mentally ill; with nowhere left to go, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Fifty years on, she is still there, moving between her bed and a nearby studio, dreaming up her unique symbology of psychedelic pumpkins, bristling cilia and swarming dot paintings.
For Stephanie Rosenthal, the director of Martin Gropius Bau and the curator of the upcoming retrospective (Germany’s first comprehensive exhibition), Kusama has always been popular in Europe, but until now little academic research has gone into the groundbreaking turn her career took during her European shows of the 1960s. Like when, in 1966 in the German town of Essen, a bright-pink kimono-clad, chain-smoking Kusama was strutting the Galerie M. E. Thelen, fully integrating her body into an environment filled with mannequins, infinity paintings and soft phallic sculptures. According to Rosenthal, this was a significant first step towards creating the kind of “entirely immersive experiences” that were to become the artist’s signature.
Since the 1960s, Kusama’s great innovation has been her willingness to break with all existing boundaries of space. From her vast matrixed paintings to her self-obliterating infinity rooms, the viewer has the sense of losing their selfhood in the endlessness of her patterns. In Kusama’s own words: “Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality. Become part of your environment.”
So far not much has been revealed about the new infinity room that Kusama has developed for the Gropius Bau atrium. Yet for all the pulling power of these large-scale pieces, Rosenthal feels an equally strong connection to Kusama’s early poetic work: “One of my favourite photos is of Kusama when she was around 24 years old sitting between all her paper drawings.” In this image, with Kusama wearing a self-designed blouse, Rosenthal sees the origin of her interdisciplinary practice. It is, she says, “a beautiful documentation of being completely enclosed”.
Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective | April 23 through August 15 | Gropius Bau, Mitte/Kreuzberg