There's something innately paradoxical about the life and work of polka dot-obsessed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama: She explores the infinite through the intimate. On one hand, she claims that her artworks — repetitious polka dot-covered sculptures, paintings and installations, and constellation-inspired mirrored rooms that give the impression of endlessness — represent something very personal (the hallucinations that plague her), and that the process of creating them acts as a sort of therapy. On the other hand, her patterned pieces seem factory produced, and the reality is that anybody could reproduce many of Yayoi Kusama's pieces with little technical difficulty. Yet, despite the simplicity and universality of her motif, Yayoi is inextricably present in her artwork.
Kusama is considered a protagonist of the New York City avant-garde movement of the sixties, having organized the city's iconic Body Festivals and exhibited alongside artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, but her work is universal. Her boldly colored polka dots have been plastered across everything from trees to naked bodies to beach balls to Louis Vuitton's latest accessory line. Naturally, appropriating the polka dot, making it synonymous with her name (she's widely known as the Polka Dot Princess) has taken considerable persistence, which has led critics and a number of her contemporaries to conclude that she's extremely savvy, a public relations mastermind rather a than a tortured soul.
This paradox extends into her recognized persona. Yayoi is a reclusive enigma who has voluntarily resided at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill since 1973. However, much of her earlier life is detailed explicitly in her autobiography Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama. In interviews, she remains poker-faced, divulging little about her personal life. At the same time, the concepts she'll happily discuss: her mental health and its influence on her art, and the overwhelming sense of the infinite she feels threatens to obviate her, could hardly be more personal.
Take for example, her 1954 painting "Flower (D.S.P.S)," about which she stated, "One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on the table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space and to be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I desperately ran up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs, straining my ankle."
So, has Yayoi Kusama finally achieved a level of internal peace through solitude and the therapeutic repetition of painting spots? And, also, could she hope to? As Albert Einstein once quipped, "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results." To quote schizophrenic sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick, whose work also explored identity and perception, "The problem with introspection is that it has no end." There is no end in sight for Yayoi, who — despite being 83 years old — is perhaps more famous, relevant and indeed prolific than ever before.
Zac Bayly: What is life like at your residence? Could you tell us about a typical day, or a specific day (like the day that you answer these questions)?
Yayoi Kusama: I had a meeting about the new building for my foundation and after that I painted new paintings for hours.
I hope this is not too personal a question, but could you describe a recent hallucination and explain how it influenced you whilst creating a particular piece of art?
Since my childhood, I’ve been suffering from hallucinations. However after I met a good psychiatrist, my condition got better. But I’ve made many works based on my hallucinations. I just kept sketching whenever I saw hallucinations.
Do you feel bound by the confines of reality?
No, I don’t feel bound by the confines of reality.
Over the years, you have described your work as "art medicine." Can you explain how creating new works is therapeutic?
Usually art production moderates my mood and I hope it also makes my physical condition get better. I keep on working from morning till night and am absorbed in art production so much that I forget my meals.
Does creating art make you happy? Is there anything else in life that brings you a sense of joy, like staring at the stars or going to the beach (your work often reminds me of infinite stars or grains of sand)?
I’ve never thought if art makes me happy or not, but I don’t have anything else. Art is everything for me. I am pleased to have many fans and to be invited to hold solo exhibitions or international exhibitions all over the world.
How have you maintained your passion for polka dots over decades?
I get mountainous energy from creating works with polka dots and infinity nets motifs. So much that I never get tired.
How has your relationship with polka dots changed over the years?
My passion has never changed. I am desperate to create more and more works.
How do you feel about stripes?
I may paint it, but I have never thought about it particularly.
In what way does your visual art correspond with your work as a novelist and poet?
I have created paintings, sculptures, movies, fashions and also many poems about infinity polka dots and universal nets. There is no boundary between visual art works and literary work. I adopt everything that I’m interested in.
What are the shared themes in your work?
I hope the world becomes a peaceful place. A world of no terrorism, nor war. I have been sending the message “Love Forever” through my art.
Who have been the three most influential people in your life, and why?
I was never influenced by someone else. I believe in my own art.
What are you most proud of and what do you most regret?
I am proud that I am constantly building up a splendid development of my creation. I don’t have any regrets. I take responsibility for my life.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of your art?
My art is misunderstood in many respects. But with my proud philosophy of life, they all change into peace and happiness.
Do you have a dream project that you are yet to create?
My life is about changing the world of a changeless hymn of life, with the power of art.
What is the most important artwork of your career?
All of my works are equally most important. I have lived till now in awe of nihilism and the infinite universe, and with a faith of wanting to up hold their mysteriousness.
What do you love and hate most in the world?
I am interested in everything and I admire all the mysteries of the universe.
How would you like to be remembered?
I hope that Yayoi Kusama’s art, which took some decades to establish, will forever stay in people’s memory as the philosophy of my life.
Published in Dossier Journal #10, 2012