Name Yayoi Kusama reminds me endless polka dots. She is now 91 and involved in painting for more than 80 years(*). Named as “princess of polka dots” in a documentary about her life, this seemingly cute lady is the master of dotty abstracts. For her, “polka dots are a way to infinity” as she quotes : “…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
In her first period of fame her works were mostly monochromatic abstracts. But when she re-births from her by-choice residence of more than twenty years in psychiatry clinic of Seiwa Hospital, this idea of infinity was dominating the way she performs. She creates the three-dimensional experiences of so called “infinity rooms” full of dots. She created the biggest infinity room in her last exhibition in Tate Modern as an “immersive environment”.
I am not sure if the art of Kusama is a kind of absolute form of minimalism or just a progressive expansion of her obsession on polka dots. Look at the names of her recent exhibitions : Eternity of eternal eternity, Look now see forever. It is hard to associate these names with image of minimalism in our minds. But, whenever I get into one of her work, this is always both peaceful and deep. And it keeps getting me deeper without any significant distortion in tranquillity. Exciting, vibrant and wise. So maybe there are more than one Kusama even when we just look to a dress she has designed with the collaboration of une nana cool : calming clear white dots on red fabric opposite with the posture and eyes of the lady which provokes new “ideas on life and mind”.
Serial production like these eternal dots may be defined as implication of consumption society, call of Popart. But as Reuben Keehan states : ” For Kusama, repetition has a more immediate therapeutic function, while introducing the paradox of destabilising the modernist fetish with novelty even while the artist pursues aesthetic innovation — if nothing else, it confuses linear understandings of the progression of time.”
Let’s take her works of “mirror rooms” : first Repetitive Vision in Mattress Factory, a peepshow-style mirror room filled with dotted lay figures like sculptures (indeed there is just three of them). This is a classic minimalist cube which offers endless visionary reproduction when you experience inside. That’s OK. But here comes the second one : Mirror Room (Pumpkin) in Hara Museum – same style mirror room filled with small pumpkin sculptures. It is interestingly different than Repetitive Vision with the mirrors on its external walls, reflecting the gallery walls as another minimalist cube. So, Keehan’s conclusion seems to be fitting the case that Kusama’s work never registers perfectly with minimalist orthodoxy (neither with my very typical expectations) but dialogues with it by having overlapped it in both time and space.
Documentary project on Yayoi Kusama’s life: Princess of Polka Dots
(*) This article was originally published in Form Och Idea, on February 27, 2012. She was 83 by the date of first publication.