Yayoi Kusama: love at first sight

Yayoi Kusama sees the world as she sees it, and that’s why I love her. Freud said a person should see who she is and go with it instead of bending into artificial shapes to fit into a particular group or society. Doing so will bring happiness and success. Caveat emptor, though, to Freud’s thesis: Sometimes being who you are is lonely.

It certainly has been for Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese avant-garde artist who, at 82, has spent the past 30 years in a psychiatric home in Japan. Though she was marginalized and kicked around, she continued her art. She was laughed at. She was poor — at one time so poor she resorted to eating fish heads from garbage cans. This week, though, she opens at London’s Tate Modern Museum.

Kusama sees the world in dots. In a recent exhibit at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Kusama and a handful of children transformed a completely white room into an awe-inspiring universe of colorful dots. A photo exhibit of the transformation accompanies it. Part of the art is in the transformation itself. The space goes from a boring room with a color scheme born from neurosis or Ikea, to the same room with a handful of blue and red and green stickers, then to a galaxy of colorful dots.

Though the room is the same, after the transformation the ambiance is completely different. Feeling the difference is human, and to feel the difference is part of Kusama’s point. From a career to a lover, how something fits is important. When a friend answers the question, “Why do you love him?” with, “Well, because I’ve known him for a decade, he studies finance and has $15,000 in savings,” she begs the question. Nowhere in the answer was the transformative experience of love mentioned.

And love is transformative. Just as the room goes from white to colorful, humans go from dim to bright or closed off to open. But doing so takes energy and action. And if Kusama has anything in life it is energy, energy she can turn into action. In the 1960s she moved from Japan to New York to make it as an artist. She spoke little English and had no money. She was amazed, though, that New York had so many art galleries. She called. She went. She harassed. She took. She put her energy into her love, which transformed her and made her act.

Kusama never gave up. Though her time in New York was productive, she was poor. Though her art was accepted in galleries, she sold her now-famous Infinity Net paintings for as little as $200. The paintings represent what so much of her work does: Life is infinitely connected, and humans can get caught in life like a trap, or see the net and live. Her Infinity Nets today sell for $850,000 to over $2 million.

To avoid being trapped, a person has to, in Kusama’s words, “Love Forever.” And Love Forever means loving who you are —the transformative forces all people have. Doing so may be lonely, but eventually, people will see. Indeed, for one woman, I know she has.

Reach the columnist at whamilt@asu.edu

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