Polka Dot Space

about Yayoi Kusama

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a 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 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 ran desperately up the stairs.
The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle

In the early seventies, Yayoi Kusama moved home and into a ­Tokyo mental hospital, after an experience of about 10 years in Seattle, where she moved in 1958, trying to become the most famous possible version of herself. She succeeded for a while, by turning herself into a kind of avant-garde hippie shaman and tabloid fixture, known for painting polka dots on naked people. But the cost was high. Her reputation in New York evaporated without her there cultivating it.

By 1996, it was ­possible for a Paula Cooper ­Gallery ­intern to find one of Yayoi’s chair-­sculptures, which are covered in phallic carbuncles, in a junk shop on East 11th Street. He bought it for just $250. He’d heard about Yayoi because that was around the time she was being ­rediscovered by a generation of curators inspired by idiosyncratic artists who’d ended up in art history’s dusty attic.

Her steady march back toward popular recognition culminates with what the Whitney Museum calls a celebration of Yayoi’s six-­decade career — and coincides with the release of a line of Yayoi-inspired luxury goods available from Louis Vuitton. The show ­arrives from the Tate Modern in London, which has made a habit of giving what its curator Frances Morris calls “the big treatment” to artists who had previously fallen out of the mainstream, and comes five years after she signed on with the ­Gagosian Gallery.

During her retreat into a psych ward, her mantra was always “self-obliteration” to lose herself in the work, or to the work, to save herself. I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art, she wrote in her autobiography. Yayoi calls her work “art-medicine” for both herself and the rest of us. I wanted to start a revolution, using art to build the sort of society I myself envisioned.

When the time comes around for people to encounter the end of their life
having put on years, death seems to be quietly approaching
It was not supposed to be my style to be frightened of that,
but I am in the shadows of my loved ones footprints,
distress revisits me at the dead of night
refreshing my memories


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