‘Determined to get her story told’: Retrospective sheds new light on Yayoi Kusama’s seven-decade career

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Written by Stephen ChungKristie Lu StoutHong-Kong

CNN International will provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Yayoi Kusama show as part of its New Year’s Eve Live special on Dec. 31.

Old age and the pandemic have not deterred Japan’s Yayoi Kusama. At the age of 93, the world’s best-selling living female artist still paints daily at the psychiatric hospital where she voluntarily checked in and where she has lived since the 1970s.

Some of her latest creations can be seen alongside early drawings in a new exhibition at the M+ museum in Hong Kong. With more than 200 works, “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to now” spans seven decades as the largest retrospective of her art in Asia outside of her homeland.

Best known for her signature pumpkin sculptures and polka dot paintings, which can fetch millions of dollars at auction, Kusama’s success has skyrocketed over the past decade. The most photogenic parts of her body of work – including her compelling “Infinity Mirror Room” installations, which have sold out tickets in museums around the world – have gained wide appeal in the age of social media.

Needless to say, her new exhibition in Hong Kong is filled with Instagram-friendly moments. But the museum’s deputy director, Doryun Chong, who co-curated the show, says he hopes visitors take the opportunity to dive deeper.

“Kusama is so much more than pumpkin sculptures and dot patterns,” he explained. “She is a thinker of deep philosophy – a trailblazing figure who has truly revealed so much about herself, her vulnerability (and) her struggles as inspiration for her art.”

See self-portraits of the artist. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

the infinite and beyond

Arranged chronologically and thematically, the show explores concepts that Kusama has revisited across multiple mediums over the course of her career. For example, the idea of ​​infinity appears in the form of repeating motifs inspired by the vivid hallucinations she experienced in childhood when she would see everything around her consumed by seemingly endless patterns.

Visitors get a sense of how these shapes evolved, starting in a room full of her “Infinity Net” paintings – including a groundbreaking work she created after first seeing the Pacific Ocean from an airplane window when she flew to the U.S. Japan in 1957.

These nets reappear in “Self-Obliteration”, an installation created between 1966 and 1974, a period after Kusama established herself in New York’s male-dominated art world despite the discrimination she faced as a woman, and another Japanese one. (She believed that male colleagues like Andy Warhol copied her ideas without credit). Consisting of six mannequins arranged around a dining table, every inch of the image – from the human figures to the furniture and cutlery – is covered in small looped brushstrokes.

The motif later reappears with a bold, vibrant effect, filling the bodies of amoeba-like shapes in select works from “My Eternal Soul,” a hundreds-strong series of acrylic paintings she began in 2009 and completed last year. They appear in the retrospective’s colorful “Force of Life” section, which immediately follows one titled “Death,” a contrast that speaks both to the dichotomies of Kusama’s work and to the internal struggles that underlie it.

“Nowadays we’re very used to[people]talking about their mental health issues, but this was 60 to 70 years ago when she started doing this,” Chong said. “It really runs throughout her life and career, but it never really stays in a dark place. She always proves that by talking about death and even her suicidal thoughts and illness, she reaffirms and regenerates her will to live. “

Elsewhere, the exhibition features lesser-known pieces from the artist’s repertoire, shedding light on what she created midway through her career, when she returned to Japan depressed and disillusioned. Among them is a 1976 black and white mounted fabric image called “Death of a Nerve”.

Though less well known, the exhibition's curators are considering "Death of a nerve" be a key piece.  It was made in 1976, the year before she voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital.

Although less well known, the curators of the exhibition consider “Death of a Nerve” a key piece. It was made in 1976, the year before she voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

A 2022 version of the artwork, created for M+ and slightly retitled “Death of Nerves”, is also on display. Realized on a much larger scale and rendered in color, it embodies a sense of resilience and even optimism unlike the original. An accompanying poem acknowledges that her nerves were “dead and shredded” after attempting suicide. After some time, however, a “universal love” “began to flow through my whole body,” she wrote; the revived Nerves “burst into beautifully vibrant color… stretching to the infinity of eternity.”

"Death of nerves" can be seen from multiple levels of the museum.

“Death of Nerves” can be seen from multiple levels of the museum. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

“It’s an unusual piece for Kusama because most people associate her with the pumpkins, or the mirror rooms, or with more pop shapes, but this is a very soft sculpture that she’s always worked on from the beginning,” explains Mika Yoshitake. , an independent curator who worked with Chong on the M+ show, as well as previous Kusama shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and the New York Botanical Garden.

“I find it incredible that she can maintain her strength through art,” added Yoshitake, who last saw Kusama in 2018, before the pandemic. “She is determined to get her story told.”

Small in comparison is a group of 11 paintings the artist started in 2021 and completed this summer called ‘Every Day I Pray for Love’.

“She has always said ‘love forever,’ said Yoshitake. She wants people to have peace, to have this warmth and to take care of each other. There is so much strife and war, terrorism, many things that she sees in the world, especially through this pandemic.”

An image of Kusama wearing a trademark red wig, featured in exhibit materials.

An image of Kusama wearing a trademark red wig, featured in exhibit materials. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

In a short email interview with CNN, Kusama explained her dedication to her art.

“I paint every day,” she said. “I continue to create a world in awe of life, embracing all messages of love, peace and the universe.”

Since her teens, Kusama has read Chinese poems and literature “with deep respect,” she said. As such, she added, she is “thrilled” to have her work featured in Hong Kong.

According to M+, the exhibition has now been described as “the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work to date,” by curator and critic Akira Tatehata, who serves as director of the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo. Tatehata, who visited the museum in November, has long supported the artist and commissioned her solo presentation of Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

The healing power of art

The retrospective also holds special significance for M+, who used the show to celebrate its one-year anniversary.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the museum has been touted as Asia’s answer to London’s Tate Modern or New York’s Museum of Modern Art. When it finally opened last year, it faced unique challenges, from Hong Kong’s changing political climate, which continues to raise concerns about censorship in all sectors, including the arts, to pandemic restrictions that saw the museum closed for three months and until recently most international visitors were banned from the city. But Chong sees the latter in any case as ‘a blessing in disguise’.

“For a global museum that has been opened and embraced by our local audience, first and foremost in its first year, it couldn’t have been a better way to launch the museum,” he said.

Polka dot pumpkins at the museum entrance.

Polka dot pumpkins at the museum entrance. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

M+ recently welcomed its 2 millionth visitor and hopes that Covid restrictions will allow more people from abroad to see the vast collection, which includes the greatest treasure of Chinese contemporary art, and the Kusama exhibition, which runs through May.

“(Kusama is) living proof that art is indeed therapy and has a powerful healing power,” said Chong. “And that’s such an important lesson, especially for us in this post-pandemic period.”



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