Cover Kusama's installation Self Obliteration (1966 - 1974) part of the M+ Collection, Photo: © Yayoi Kusama/M+ Hong Kong

M+’s first special exhibition is on Yayoi Kusama, and sheds light on her fascinating and prolific career, revealing a persistent personality who forged her status as an art icon

Phalluses, polka dots and pumpkins: it’s the Kusama trifecta, the trio that elicits instant recognition from even the most art-ignorant of the masses, the visuals which have become synonymous with artist Yayoi Kusama. “Yes, she is the polka dot lady who makes the pumpkins,” says Doryun Chong, deputy director, curatorial, and chief curator at M+ museum with a hint of exasperation. “But she’s also so much more than that.”

When we speak, Chong is gearing up for Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, the long-awaited exhibition at M+ which charts the breadth and depth of her prolific career and seeks to deliver the critical acclaim which is often overshadowed by the artist’s mainstream appeal.

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Four years in the making, the exhibition, which opens on November 12, is curated by Chong and Mika Yoshitake, an independent curator specialising in postwar Japanese art and an expert on Kusama. The format, extent and new commissions of this exhibition will set it apart from the multitudes of shows that have come before it, says Yoshitake. “A lot of other retrospectives have been chronological; ours yields itself to a very open format.”

Chong and Yoshitake have configured the show across six themes that encapsulate motifs and concepts which have been integral to and consistently visible throughout Kusama’s practice: infinity, accumulation, death, force of life, biocosmic, and radical connectivity. More than 200 works, including three brand new ones, have been selected for show in the Hong Kong museum.

The new works are Dots Obsession—Aspiring to Heaven Loves (2022); two new Pumpkin (2022) sculptures that fit the biocosmic theme “which integrates the celestial with earthly themes and explores the convergence of humans and nature”, as Yoshitake puts it; and Death of Nerves (2022), a site-specific iteration of a 1976 work of the same name commissioned by M+. Yoshitake describes the latter as a network of entanglements spanning multiple floors; it is set to be one of the larger installations in the show.

Many never-before-seen works will also be on view, particularly from the 1970s and 1980s, a time in Kusama’s career that both curators say is less well known. “The narrative about her life and art have focused on her New York years [in the 1960s], rather than her life in Japan,” says Chong. “That isn’t the case with our exhibition.”

Also on view is Self Obliteration (1966-1974), a work symbolic of this transitional period in her career. The rare sculptural ensemble, which sees the fusion of sculpture and painting, features six female mannequins in various colours covered in Kusama’s signature infinity nets, staged around a dining table. Chong says the work is particularly significant because it was one of the few she brought back to Japan from New York, where she started it.

The 1960s saw Kusama in New York, showing off her daring, performative side at the height of hippie culture; documentation of some of this work is on display in the in the “radical connectivity” section of the M+ show. In addition to participating in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, she staged nude protests and subversive performances which often included painting polka dots all over her body or attaching stuffed fabric penises to herself.

One interpretation of the repetitive motifs of her work—be they spots, winter squash or male genitalia—is that they refer to “self-obliteration”, or the abandonment of ego. “You get rid of ego and see each other as equals; it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, gay, Asian or Black. This was a huge driver in her vision of equity, understanding, and empathy and is foundational to her practice,” Yoshitake says.

“She was a tiny Asian woman who knew and stated she was better [than the dominant white male artists] and was pushing boundaries at the time,” Chong adds. “[She had] a fierce, unshakeable conviction in herself; and the groundbreaking nature of her work has been there from the beginning.”

It was perhaps this persistent self-belief that drove the artist to stage an intervention of sorts at the 1966 Venice Biennale, partially as a response to not being invited to participate in it and to challenge the commodification of art. With the help of a friend, renowned artist Lucio Fontana, she set up a performance and installation called Narcissus Garden (1966) which consisted of the artist donning a gold kimono, standing under a sign that read “Your narcissism for sale” and selling 1,500 mirrored orbs to viewers for US$2 a piece. Eventually the police were called to escort her off the premises. Her costume choice was Kusama intentionally playing up her “otherness” as a rare Asian woman in the western art world; as Yoshitake observes, “In wearing that gold kimono, she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Despite her visibility and notoriety overseas, her return home in the 1970s was muted. “Everyone goes through a midlife crisis, but it’s very typical that artists—especially female artists—who are middle-aged get overlooked,” says Chong. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the artist’s work began to be shown more regularly in Japan.

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The 1970s were also when she spiralled into depression, possibly because she was seen as something of an outcast in the Japanese art world. During this period, she began writing more than making art, novels in particular. “There is a lot of dark imagery, erotic takes on death, and murder suicides,” Yoshitake says of the content of her novels. It was “literature that is surreal, profound, and grotesque”, says Chong, adding, “she deepened her exploration of her imagination through writing.”

It is widely known that the artist has never wanted to marry or engage in sexual relationships after being told as a child by her mother to spy on her father who was having extramarital affairs. “[Kusama] didn’t want to bond with anyone, and lost all sense of trust,” says Yoshitake. “She wasn’t interested in having a heterosexual relationship with a man.” While Kusama developed close relationships with men, including fellow artist Joseph Cornell, they seemed to remain strictly platonic.

Kusama’s art famously became a coping mechanism for the various mental health issues she has experienced since childhood: her sculptures helped her confront her apprehension surrounding sex, while her infinity nets and dot motifs reflect the ideas of compulsion and repetition, known characteristics of OCD behaviour. “There is a repetitive vision inside of her that she needed to get out,” says Yoshitake. What’s more, there is meaning ascribed to every mark made on her sculptures and on her canvases. “The show really goes deep into how these motifs have become prolific; two polka dots together represent connection between two people, whereas a single polka dot means isolation.”

For the most part, Kusama’s art is seen as highly Instagrammable, and has found a new audience thanks to social media. Yoshitake describes Kusama’s practice as “prophetic”, while Chong says, “We have to admit that the vast majority of the public just find it ‘cute’.” However, he continues, “This is a superficial perception, otherwise her work wouldn’t have persisted for so long and would be a fleeting trend. Her practice is really about the range of human psychology. The visual and physical experience [of her work] is like a feeling of transformation or being transported to a different realm.” Whether it’s a sense of discomfort from seeing a field of phalluses or wonder at being immersed in her mirrored infinity rooms, the work nearly always elicits a visceral reaction.

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The unique combination of vulnerability and boldness in a Kusama piece may also resonate with  viewers. “She’s been open and honest about her  challenges from the beginning,” Chong says, a  reminder that speaking openly about mental health  has only recently ceased to be considered taboo,  especially in Asia.

Now 93, Kusama, who has been living in a mental health facility since 1977, still heads to her studio on a daily basis. With the onset of Covid-19, her work has become even more meaningful: Yoshitake, who has worked with Kusama on multiple occasions, says her own interpretation of the artist’s work has evolved over the last few years. “The pandemic really affected her [Kusama’s] thinking. The emotional side of the pain and trauma she experienced is not a hypothetical or abstract theme. It’s more about what she was feeling that day and what she did in order to survive. Her works are filled with regeneration as a powerful form of healing , which really speaks to our moment.”

“It feels so relevant to our daily existence,” says Chong of Kusama’s art. “It’s not just about Kusama and her  trauma, but also what art’s role is in its relationship to  healing.” At a time when the world seems to need  healing more than ever, the timelessness of Kusama’s  legacy endures.

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