Artists to my mind are the real architects of change,
Wrote William S. Burroughs, “and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” It’s a sentiment echoed by one of the most revered and intriguing creative minds of our time, Yayoi Kusama. “Artists should protest all the time,” she tells Time Out London, “because there are still many problems in the world with democracy and human rights and because there is a big gap between the wealthy and the poor.”
Kusama is, according to the Art Newspaper, “the poster girl for the globalisation of contemporary art”. Notable accolades for the 86-year-old include the Asahi Prize, the National Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ordes des Arts et des Lettres. A 2014 museum attendance survey revealed Kusama to be the world’s most popular artist, attracting over two million people to a retrospective — including her iconic polka-dot and mirror installations — in South and Central America alone. In 2008 a painting of hers sold at New York’s Christies for US$5.1 million, a record at the time for a living female artist and she was the first Japanese woman to be bestowed with the prestigious Praemium Imperiale. But, nationality, she says, should be an irrelevance. “I don’t want to be seen as a Japanese artist,” Kusama tells the Financial Times. “I just want to be able to explore my art freely in an international context.” The likes of Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol have cited her as an influence.
Kusama’s upbringing was a troubled one. She claims to have experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts — often of a suicidal nature — since childhood and to have suffered physical and mental abuse by her mother. “My parents were a real pain,” she continues. “I couldn’t stand it.” Though she describes her mother and father as “conservative”, their relationship both with each other, and their daughter, was certainly a strange one: “When I was a child, my father had lovers and I experienced seeing him. My mother sent me to spy on him. I didn’t want to have sex with anyone for years.” Kusama admits to then developing an “obsession” with it. “I wanted to be an artist from an early age,” she tells the Telegraph. “I couldn’t help sketching the things around me…. Painting saved my life: when I wanted to commit suicide, my doctor encouraged me to paint more.”
In 1957, aged 27, after spending time in Tokyo and later France, the artist moved to America: “I was alone — very strange for a young Japanese girl. I spent all my time on my work and burned through the dollars I had. I lived in poverty, often painting furiously to survive cold and hunger.” Kusama also sought counsel from Georgia O’Keefe. “I first came across an image of hers in a book of images of animal bones in the desert,” she tells Time Out. “I thought it was wonderful and wanted to communicate with her.” A longstanding correspondence between the two artists developed.
Kusama became a fixture of the New York avant-garde scene, focussing on sculpture and installations. During the 1960s, she organised peculiar events — regularly involving nudity — at places such as Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge in protest of the Vietnam War. She even penned a letter to the United States President, Richard Nixon, offering to have “vigorous sex” with him if he withdrew his troops from the Southeast Asian nation. Towards the end of the decade she began painting polka dots on naked performers, a pattern that has since become her calling card.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 due to sickness and began writing stories and poems of a surreal nature. She soon checked herself into a Tokyo psychiatric hospital from where she has lived and worked ever since. It is still important for her to “communicate through her paintings” and when asked by Time Out if fame has taken its toll, she replies that she would still like to become even more so. She tells the Financial Times that her main message is to “stop war and live out the brilliance of life.” She wants to keep her profile as high as possible, “even after I have died.” Discussing an upcoming exhibition of her work at Tate Modern she asks, “Do you think they will like my art in London?” and describes the growing attention her work is now receiving as the best moment of her life. “When I was in New York I spoke better English,” she says, “but now I am painting all the time and I’ve forgotten everything. I love painting so much that nothing else matters.”