Cover Yayoi Kusama in Hong Kong in 2012 (Photo: Getty Images)

Ahead of a major retrospective showcase at the Hong Kong museum, here are some of the Japanese contemporary artist’s most career-defining works of art

Even if you aren’t familiar with her name, chances you would recognise a Yayoi Kusama creation. Giant pumpkin with dots all over it ring any bells? 

There is far more to the Japanese artist than dotty pumpkins though. With a career of more than 70 years, she is one of the world’s most iconic and influential Asian contemporary artists, and her creations are as varied in styles as they are avant-garde.

From November 12, 2022, to May 14, 2023, M+ museum at West Kowloon in Hong Kong will celebrate its first anniversary with the Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now exhibition. With 200 of her pieces—drawn from the M+ collection, museums and private collections from across Asia, and selections from the creator’s personal collection—this will be the biggest Kusama exhibition in Asia outside of Tokyo.

Here are five ground-breaking works of art you by Yayoi Kusama should know about.

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1. Infinity Mirror Rooms – Phalli’s Field (1965)

Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms may be Insta-famous, but its concept was conceived a long time before the advent of social media. Its precursor, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (1965), was installed for her 1965 Floor Show solo exhibition at Castellane Gallery in New York, which served as a breakthrough for both her practice and career. Not only did this piece contain motifs that later became ubiquitous in her work, such as repetitive dots and phalluses, but this marked the first time Kusama experimented with using mirrors to amplify the intense repetition of her work, and thus creating an immersive experience.

2. Narcissus Garden (1966)

When Kusama was not invited to the 1966 Biennale di Venezia, the biannual cultural exhibition in Venice, Italy, she staged a response with the help of her friend, renowned Argentine-Italian painter Lucio Fontana.

Kusama set up a subversive and provocative performance and installation called Narcissus Garden (1966) next to the Italian pavilion on the exhibition site, which featured her in a gold kimono under a sign that read “Your Narcissism for Sale” and selling 1,500 mirrored orbs to viewers for US$2 apiece. The kimono was Kusama playing up her “otherness” as one of the few Asian women in the Western art world. Eventually the police were called to escort her off the premises

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3. Accumulation No. 1 (1962)

Entirely covered in hand-sewn, stuffed, protruding “phalluses”, the chair in Kusama’s Accumulation No. 1 was certainly not made for comfort.

It is widely known the artist has never desired marriage or sexual relationships; this is attributed to a childhood memory of her mother telling her to spy on her father, who was having extramarital affairs. In this piece, the repetition of phallic objects is the artist’s way of confronting her fear of male genitalia, something that would become another recurring theme throughout her career.

Her provocative and humorous transformation of a seemingly ordinary domestic article shocked many critics at the time. Made in her New York city apartment, the work was exhibited in a group show at Green Gallery in 1962 alongside works by other renowned artists, including her friend Claes Oldenburg, who was known for large-scale replicas of everyday objects. Accumulation No. 1 reflected the artistic influences Kusama was exposed at the time and serves as a reminder that she and her contemporaries cross-influenced each other.

4. Pumpkins, 1998 - 2000

The pumpkins that have become emblematic and synonymous of Kusama’s style first made an appearance in her work in 1946, when she was a teenager living in post-Second World War Japan. Painted in the traditional Japanese Nihonga style, this early version was starkly different from the artist’s signature bold aesthetic that is readily recognisable and wildly popular today. The pumpkin motif then re-emerged in her sculptures in the 1970s.

Earlier this month, a brand-new Pumpkin sculpture was installed at the Bennesse Art site on Japan’s Naoshima Island after the original was swept away by Typhoon Lupit in August 2021. The new sculpture is said to come with a new attachment that makes it typhoon-resistant.

5. Infinity Net Series, 1958 - Present

Kusama started painting her Infinity Nets after moving to New York in 1958. Here is another example of the artist coping with her anxiety through the process of repetition, or what she refers to as “self-obliteration”: a method she uses to obliterate her fears and ego.

In 2014, a work from this series sold for US$7.1 million, which made Kusama the highest-selling female artist alive at the time. Since her works started appearing at auctions, Kusama has accumulated a total turnover of US$889 million across 7,884 lots sold. 

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