By Maya Palit
Here’s an artist whose longstanding mental illness, where she experienced strong visual hallucinations and saw the world in polka dots, became fundamental to her artwork.
For Yayoi Kusama, an 87-year-old Japanese woman, her art has been a coping mechanism ever since she began to struggle with mental illness as a child (ignoring the advice she was once given in a psychiatric hospital, where she was told that her painting was the cause of her illness). Although she checked herself into a psychiatric institute (Seiwa Hospital for the mentally ill) in Tokyo in 1977, she has since spent her days working at a studio across the road. Her earliest work using this style is a painting of a woman in a kimono covered in spots, that she created at the age of 10.
After moving to Seattle in 1957, Kusama rapidly became an established part of the avant-garde movement (and was also involved in politics, organising nude protests around New York against the Vietnam war, and once declaring to the press that she wanted to ‘Obliterate Wall Street Men with Polka Dots). Her big break came when she created what she called an ‘infinity net’ – a 30-foot, often monochroatic, canvas with repetitive patterns, giving the illusion of endlessness. One series in this style, of a white lace-like net, she continued to work on for almost 50 years.
Her preoccupation with recurring patterns and shapes led her to create in 1965 what she called ‘infinity rooms’. She would put several objects, like polka-dotted balloons, pumpkins, stuffed cotton balls, or LED lights, in a dimly-lit room surrounded by mirrors, giving the illusion of endlessness. She rapidly got crtical acclaim for these installations, and their charm has endured: on Saturday, viewers queued for hours outside the Hishorn Museum in Washington DC for a new show called ‘Infinity Mirrors’. Kusama’s unique vision and style has made her one of Japan’s most prominent artists today, so it’s not surprising that Kusama has said many times over the years, that she doesn’t want to cure her mental illness, but instead, use it in her art.