Photo by Tomoaki Makino

The Psychedelic Therapy of Yayoi Kusama

Behind the ecstatic colors of Tokyo’s most venerable living artist is a woman barely escaping the throes of psychosis.

Yayoi Kusama’s bizarre mind is the culprit behind the orgiastic harmony of shapes and colors. The artistic spectrum of delusion of which Kusama is known for is the artistic psychotherapy she constantly seeks. This Tokyo native has subjected herself inside her own artistic asylum, an act that confounds people with the complexity of her mind.

The reason for her visions of hypnotic illusions is her Severe Depersonalization Disorder, which had tormented Kusama as a girl, driving her into a crazed, polka-dotted frenzy. Her obsession caused her to voluntarily retreat into a psychiatric facility in Tokyo. Despite her condition, Kusama is rarely indisposed, as she often frequents her studio daily to create mesmerizing art pieces and to keep her sane.

State of the art

Being an artistic Japanese woman plagued with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Kusama had to toil for her success. Her mental condition severely affected her even at such a young age. It had almost seemed like Kusama was always at a disadvantage: a girl with a condition that forces her to constantly produce one masterpiece after the other, a female artist in a predominantly male-dominated Japan, an artist will an uncanny flair for patterns.

Not many were able fathom her brilliance – not even Japan, known for its wide range of peculiar interests; even the town she grew up in had misunderstood her psychedelic excursions.

Not many were able fathom her brilliance – not even Japan, known for its wide range of peculiar interests; even the town she grew up in had misunderstood her psychedelic excursions. Kusama was considered an enigma in her hometown, as her feminist ideas challenged the patriarchal authority which, at the time, was rampant in Japanese society. Growing up during the Great Depression in Japan, a time in which the country was severely oppressed by the military, her art was a voice of opposition among the crowd.

Her Creative Expression

Traditional styles of the Japanese began to frustrate Kusama so much so that she started to digest literature on avant-garde European and American art, and orchestrating controversial exhibitions of her paintings in Matsumoto and Tokyo in the 1950s. She had several “body festivals,” heavily inspired by feminism and sexual liberation. Her mental struggle then led her to New York where she painted on empty canvas after empty canvas.

Which is to say, the world had been Kusama’s canvas: Europe, America, and Asia had all witnessed the opulence of her work. There seemed to be no end to the polka-dotted fantasy that was Kusama. One of her most prestigious works was sold in 2008 at a hefty price of $5.1 million, notably one of the biggest accomplishments any living artist in Japan had ever earned. Architect of many a prismatic world, Yayoi Kusama is the living proof that a “broken” artist can be a successful one. In spite of being driven mad to the point of painting patterns without fail, Kusama’s artistry, much like her hypnotic art, is boundless.

Outside the Canvas

As the creative polymath that she is, Kusama started using other media of art outside of paint alone, such as clay, paper, and film. Art sculpting, in particular, had led her to an assemblage of peculiar installations: exhibits with gallery floors blanketed by macaroni, panoramic, polka-dotted displays, and eccentric silhouetted sculptures.

Kusama’s surrealism did not only manifest in her painting, though this was the first medium she had ever explored and expressed herself in. She had also directed and starred in a film that features herself: “Obliteration of Yayoi Kusama,” a movie that offers a peek at the artist’s own life. Scholars agree that her innovative artwork emerges from and is inextricably linked with her own troubled life. On the other hand, aside from her artwork and stint at movie directing, Yayoi Kusama is also an accomplished writer. Her body of literary work includes novels and poetry, titled, The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street (1983), Aching Chandelier (1989), and her autobiography, Infinity Net.

Since 1963, Kusama has had a proclivity for playing with mirrors, usually adding them as a part of a complex installation. The installation-rooms are lined from top to bottom with mirrors, and suspended neon balls, often dubbed “Infinity Rooms.” These art pieces were often crafted to depict the illusion of boundless stretches of space and of light.

“Narcissus Garden,” made specifically for the 33rd Venice Biennale, was the first of her many art installations. Through the piece, where many were able to marvel at hundreds upon hundreds of mirrored spheres that curiously form what Kusama calls a “kinetic carpet.” Motley crowds often flock to her exhibits, especially “Infinite Obsession,” housing to date the largest audiences, a horde of just over two million visitors, eager to view her work. The deluge of eager spectators, in fact, had caused Mexico’s Museo Tamayo to stay open for 36 hours, in order to accommodate Kusama’s fans.

The installation-rooms are lined from top to bottom with mirrors, and suspended neon balls, often dubbed “Infinity Rooms.” These art pieces were often crafted to depict the illusion of boundless stretches of space and of light.

At 86, Kusama’s artistic prowess has yet to show signs of slowing down. She had recently illustrated an entirely new version of The Little Mermaid for a new Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Collaboration. She has radically reimagined Hans Christian Andersons’ story using a selection of delicately drawn pen-and-ink sketches, purposefully called, The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen & Yayoi Kusama: A Fairy Tale of Infinity and Love Forever, as the piece also features her past illustrations from her Love Forever series. And of course, never absent are the rhythmic playfulness of Kusama’s patterns.

What was considered the greatest weakness of this doll-like artist became the catapult to launch her into much-deserved acclaim. Many can learn from Kusama, a woman who turned her dark, deep-seated, self-destructive thoughts into infinite worlds of colorful, vibrant, and quirky patterns.

At times when we are driven mad by circumstance, and when our work fails to shed any substantial meaning, and if our psychosis discomforts many, we take inspiration from Kusama: when all else fails, create endlessly.