Imagine we’re in the United States in the sixties. The streets of New York are filled with the buzzing ideals of revolution, which have come to characterize this decade. A half-naked woman leads a crowd of people covered only by perfect fluorescent circles. The crowd has followed her to Central Park, and that precise moment is frozen in a unique and bewildering scene. It looks like the most successful happening of the year: their leader, a Japanese woman, with long black hair and a big smile, stands in one of the most emblematic places of the city, clears her throat, and unfolds a piece of paper. Everybody is attentively waiting for her big message.
Everyone is quiet, all the attendants look at her expectantly, waiting to listen to what she's about to say. The woman feels all eyes on her, but the only thing people can really focus on are the dots, colorful dots all over her body.
Dots, dots, and dots.
Dots made her famous, they're her distinctive marker; they're the core of her rebellious nature, which inspired her to leave behind her home country and family. These perfect, brightly colored dots spread out on the infinite cosmos. Even as she stood in the middle of the crowd, she could still hear the strident yelling of her mother, as if she hadn't left her home at all. Her past was always there, looming over her.
As the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, she was able to attend the most prestigious Art schools in Japan. Even though she excelled in the conventional Japanese aesthetics called Nihonga, there was always an element of rebellion present in her work. Art was a form of escapism, the tormented relationship of her parents created a difficult living environment and art was her door to freedom. Her mother was never a loving or protective figure, and she remembers her father as a passing shadow that escaped from home whenever he had the chance.
Yayoi Kusama spotted the first signs of her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when she was very young. This is why she remembers experiencing hallucinations from an early stage. This resulted in suicidal tendencies that prevailed throughout her entire life. The pressures from school and her private life exacerbated her afflictions, and she had no tools at her disposal to handle them. A fire had been kindled.
Despite living through a difficult childhood and emotional upheavals, Kusama managed to move away from her home country. She longed for a fresh start, away from the stiff parameters of Japanese art. So she decided to move to New York City when she was 31 years old, and there she found a shelter where she could freely explore her artistic and intellectual visions. During the sixties, she covered the walls of many galleries with "infinite nets," as she called them. Soon, she became a renowned artist in the elite circles of New York's Bohemian life.
It was in New York where Kusama was able to expand her knowledge on the latest artistic currents. She met Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keeffe, and many other prominent artists of the time. It became a symbiotic process in which she was influenced by them and they allowed her revolutionary visions to impregnate their own work. This enabled her to exhibit her work in the important galleries and market her name as a huge, artistic brand. Everybody wanted her "infinite nets" mounted on their walls: dots of contrasting colors where one could get easily lost. It was an old obsession that was just beginning to emerge.
Fame opened the horizons for Kusama. Despite her particular dislike for sex –and everything related to the act itself–, she decided to do something more than just dotted walls. She started playing with the idea of creating phallic shapes using tentacles or canes. The implicit sexual hints became a constant in Kusama's art. The obsession that was born from her youth became her trademark. She didn't care about critics, and experimentation was the main feature of her artistic career while she lived in the United States.
Besides her scandalous large-scale pieces, Kusama is known for being one of the first artists to implement artistic installations.
While this had seen before in the art world, she was certainly a pioneer. Her art was sensorial and innovative in such a way that the viewer ended up being immersed in the work. The red dots and infinity mirrors created a never ending world where the spectator was left in a daze, wanting more. Kusama has an uncanny understanding of her audience, making her one of the most acclaimed artists of the twentieth century.
The fame and fortune she obtained in the United States weren't enough. Her revolutionary spirit wasn't limited to an artistic capacity, she also took it into the social and political fields of the time. Many artists picked up the peace banner to protest against the Vietnam War and Kusama joined in through diverse public performances that criticized the incompetence of the government. She was under the spotlight.
In 1967, she gathered a lot of her followers and painted them with fluorescent circles to demand the government to bring the troops back. They went out into the streets half-naked, carrying signs and crying out for peace. They arrived at Central Park, turning the emblematic spot into a sea of dotted people.
When Kusama unfolded the piece of paper she held in her hands, she addressed president Nixon. She offered her body in exchange for the safe return of the troops from Vietnam, stopping the ecological and social destruction, and ending the nonsensical war. These words were representative of a generation that genuinely wanted to make a change. Through her performance she made an important political statement.
Years later, Yayoi Kusama went back to Japan and opened an art studio. In 1973, she began writing novels in her spare time, since her poor health didn't allow her to do much. Today, the 88-year-old artist is still exhibiting her art at the most important museums around the world and working in her studio in Japan. She voluntarily admitted herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she's allowed to go every day to her studio to continue her work. Like her colorful dots, her life has come full circle, bestowing upon the world a beautiful legacy.
Art represents many of the obsessions and disorders that humanity suffers. Take a look at these 5 Artists Who Were Inspired By Drugs And Pain.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards