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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008


The slow ride home of Yayoi Kusama

Staff writer

'Tell her she's cute!" exhorts Takako Matsumoto, the director of a new documentary, "Watashi Daisuki (I Adore Myself)," about Yayoi Kusama. Matsumoto is sharing the stage at a promotional event for the film at Shibuya's Cinema Rise with the iconic visual artist, whose career winds all the way back to the heady New York scene of the 1950s and '60s.

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama at a Shibuya screening of the documentary "I Adore Myself" YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Unaccustomed to cat-calling, it takes time for the audience to get started, but soon the venue is awash with cries of kawaii! celebrating what is Kusama's favorite attribute: her cuteness.

And only the most callous of ageists would have had the heart to disagree. Kusama, who will turn 79 next month, is looking resplendent in a neck-to-toe yellow pumpkin-themed dress and a bright red, bob-shaped wig.

As though awakened by the show of affection, Kusama promptly ceases her nervously unbroken speech — a well-practiced expression of thanks to the film's staff — and, with her bright eyes darting around the room, addresses her audience directly for the first time:

"So you are all here because you want to see the documentary about avant- garde artist Yayoi Kusama, right?"

More applause and peals of laughter make the answer to that question obvious and then, while the artist's spirits are still buoyant, Matsumoto soon wraps up the event and the artist is led off the stage.

Yayoi Kusama has reached a stage in her life of such productivity, recognition and stability that 30 years ago it must have seemed like an unlikely dream. In the early '70s, after 15 years at the crest of the avant-garde art wave that crashed over New York, she was greeted on her return to Japan by howls of disapproval from the conservative local media.

That reception helped trigger a relapse into the mental illness that had plagued her since childhood. The bouts of often suicidal depression that ensued abated only when she checked herself into a mental hospital in 1977.

Still, the calm that Kusama now enjoys is somewhat precarious, with her emotions requiring the constant attention of those who surround her (hence, one wonders, the episode at the cinema). The staff at her studio and the hospital — where she has lived since 1977 — form what is essentially a 24-hour cheer squad to provide both physical and moral support.

Immediately after the speech at the cinema, Kusama made her way out to the lobby to discuss her art with The Japan Times. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, she lost the talkative confidence briefly inspired by the cries of "kawaii."

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli's Field" COURTESY OF KUSAMA STUDIO

"It's all a complete surprise," she says when asked how she feels about the audience's warm reception. "But it's not just me. It's the staff, the production company. They've all worked hard, and I'm very happy with the film," she continues in a series of short, tightly clipped sentences. Throughout the interview she manages to bring questions back to the only topic she seems really comfortable discussing on the day: her appreciation of the filmmakers' efforts.

Kusama's artistic output has been so consistent for so long that it is almost impossible to say when her career began. At age 10 she drew a picture of her mother, covered in the same spots that 70 years later are still a trademark of her art. By the age of 23, in 1952, when she held two solo exhibitions in her native Nagano Prefecture, she was making abstract paintings and drawings so captivating and well-constructed that they attracted the attention of Shuzo Takiguchi, the art critic who through a series of translations of Andre Breton's theories introduced Surrealism into Japan in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kusama's art has always been a window into her often frail psychological state. In her 20s she painted at the phenomenal speed of up to 50-60 paintings per day, working from the "hallucinations" she says accompanied her everyday life. For that reason her output has always interested psychologists as much as art critics; it was they who played important roles in having her work seen beyond Nagano, in prime venues such as Tokyo's Shirokiya department store in 1954.

Kusama describes her painting process by saying her "hand just moves across the canvas by itself. I don't control it, and I don't make preliminary sketches. The painting comes first and any thoughts come after." This work style has remained unchanged since she was a child.

Still, it seems odd that such well- constructed paintings — with concentrations of dots or lines balancing out more sparsely inhabited stretches of canvas — could be made without some prior planning.

The person who has recently seen Kusama working at closest quarters (outside of her own staff) is perhaps Takako Matsumoto, who filmed her for 18 months from early-2006 while making "I Adore Myself" — a title incorporating one of the artist's characteristically cute expression of self-affirmation.

"There really are no preliminary sketches," Matsumoto says. "Kusama will ask for a canvas and then just start drawing immediately from one side."

The process is documented neatly in a time-lapse sequence in the film (now screening in Tokyo and set to open elsewhere this month): a highly elaborate pattern of stylized leaves and flowers gradually extends across the canvas bit by bit, like a slowly growing bacteria.

It was in New York that Kusama learned that her work need not stop at the edge of her canvases. After crossing the Pacific in 1957, she quickly established a reputation with large-scale, abstract, monochrome paintings — often fields of dots that fitted perfectly into the then-dominant Abstract Expressionist's preference for an "all-over" treatment of the canvas. As early as 1959 artists such as Donald Judd were buying her art, and by 1960 she was being selected alongside big names such as Mark Rothko in group shows in Europe.

In 1962 Kusama made "Accumulation No. 1," a sofa — apparently one that her neighbor-artist Judd had brought in from the street — covered with phallus-like protuberances, each made of strips of used bed sheets.

The sculpture and similar pieces were soon incorporated into large-scale installations that eventuated after Kusama one day continued painting beyond her canvas, onto her desk and herself. She realized that the visions that had long fed her paintings could be given more full realization in total environments. Boats filled with the same phallic protrusions appeared in 1963, and they were quickly followed by rooms full of factory-made macaroni, mirrors, wallpaper-like repeated prints and shiny silver balls.

"In New York I incorporated all the new materials into my work," Kusama says. "I used everything and anything as I wanted. I've never been afraid of that."


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