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Literally the Best Thing Ever: Yayoi Kusama

Worshipping at the altar of the High Priestess of Polka Dots.

I’m trying to remember how I first heard about the artist Yayoi Kusama. I think I was reading about Rei Kawakubo, a designer I’m obsessed with, and her obsession with dots, and some article somewhere (after you’ve read 90,000,000 articles about someone they start to blend together) mentioned that when it comes to obsessions with dots, though, no one beats Yayoi Kusama.

Part of a series of Kusama installations called Dots Obsession.

Kusama puts dots on everything—canvases, walls, sculptures, entire rooms, even naked bodies. Through her art, Kusama invites us into her world, and her brain, and it feels like stepping into something bigger than yourself. I very rarely feel that way, which speaks to the fact that great art can bring out the faith in even the most ardent atheist, such as myself. Ugh, feelings. <3____<3

Kusama’s installation Fireflies on the Water is a room filled with mirrors and twinkling lights above a pool of water. Photo via the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Kusama has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and seen hallucinations since childhood. She channels these things into her art, which is all pretty obsessive and hallucinatory. She started drawing dots when she was 10; 73 years later she hasn’t stopped. She now lives in a mental institution and works in a studio across the street. Her obsessions and her struggles have shaped her creative process, which is really methodical, and productive.

Untitled artwork, 1939, via msv.

This illustration (which is assumed to be of her mom) is Kusama’s earliest recorded work, which is slightly ironic (and, I think, kinda cool) because her mom really discouraged her from becoming an artist, telling her she would have to become a housewife one day, anyway, so there was no point in pursuing her dream. She took away Kusama’s art supplies, beat her, and repeatedly destroyed her paintings before Kusama left home on her own and enrolled in an art school in Kyoto. Now, Kusama is one of the most respected (and best selling) female artists, ever.

I sketch and write to work through my anxiety, and I’ve been obsessed with eyes since I was 10—so I really connect to her work. Her art is all-consuming; you have no choice but to be completely overwhelmed by it, to the point where you can’t really think about your problems because there’s too much to look at. Her obsessions take over your brain so there’s no room for your own. It’s almost like she uses her hands to give a physical manifestation to her obsessions and fears, to move them out of her body and show others what they look like. I think it’s her way of taking control of her fears and nightmares.

Infinite Reflections (2009) (image from In Art We Trust)

Yayoi has inspired so many other artists and icons I admire, and has parlayed her art into clothing (she had her own line, sold at Bloomingdale’s, for a short while) and makeup (a collaboration with Estée Lauder in 2011). She recently worked with Marc Jacobs on a line of clothes and a series of installations for Louis Vuitton, which you can still get out now and see in person, or look at on the website dedicated to the collaboration.

Hannah Lutterbach in Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama, photographed by Dennison Bertram for the Czech edition of Marie Claire.

Here’s a video of Kusama at work. Is she not the most creative, adorable woman you’ve ever seen? I just want to hang out with her and also cuddle with her and also roll around in her artwork.

Last December, for an installation in Australia called Obliteration Room, Kusama built a big white room and then gave colored dot stickers to thousands of little kids over the course of two weeks. Here’s what happened:

Kusama was also an activist in the ’60s, and even officiated at a wedding of two gay men in New York in 1968. She called herself the High Priestess of Polka Dots, and those “baptized” at her Church of Self-Obliteration had to have their bodies covered with (consumed by) polka dots, to, as she put it in this really cool interview from 1999 on BOMB’s website, “return to the root of their eternal soul.” Dots have always been about infinity to her, about a place bigger than yourself.

Later in that interview she says, “I will continue to create artwork as long as my passion keeps me doing so. I am deeply moved that so many people have been my fans. I have been grappling with art as a therapy for my disease, but I suppose I would not be able to know how people would evaluate my art until after I die. I create art for the healing of all mankind.”

How remarkable, to deal with your bad juju in a way that makes everyone feel better, and makes the world around you more beautiful. Yayoi Kusama 4ever. ♦

45 Comments

  • chloegrey November 14th, 2012 11:17 PM

    So first off, been really truly enjoying Rookie since I started reading in like August, but I somehow felt like it was an apt time to comment.
    Okay, I knew the article was going to be about Yayoi Kusama since I saw the picture earlier, and maybe a few minutes after that I found out my best friend’s mom is going to die really soon, like maybe a few days, from the cancer she’s been beating for as long as I’ve known her. And the whole reason why I know who the wonderful miss Kusama is is because Amanda Palmer (the musician) talked about her on her blog, and there was just another thing on her blog about how her oldest friend was just diagnosed with cancer. And the whole reason why I noticed that was because Amanda Palmer is from the same town as me and is coming here to do a show tomorrow and I was trying to get tickets for it 9well, it wasn’t the grandest of coincedences…) And when I told my mom that my best friend’s mom is dying, she said how funny, she had just been thinking about her, and we were talking about when my mom’s mom died and the serendipity of it all. I wonder if the more you think about it, the more of a web it all is. And I wonder what Yayoi Kusama would think about all that infiniteness and healing and serendipity, too.

    • Anaheed November 14th, 2012 11:20 PM

      Um…WOW.

      • chloegrey November 14th, 2012 11:39 PM

        thanks I guess? I mean, I’m just gonna say thanks, cause any response is pretty dandy, much less wow.

        • Anaheed November 14th, 2012 11:56 PM

          Sorry, yes, I meant that your comment was so amazing that I could barely form words!

    • Gorda November 15th, 2012 2:15 PM

      This is honest.

  • Jenn November 14th, 2012 11:17 PM

    <3 what a perfect philosophy, love Yayoi Kusama

  • Ben November 14th, 2012 11:46 PM

    I did these cool polka dot nails inspired by her recently and i really love them! also i Love her pieces that include the mirrors, i’m very fascinated by mirrors and want to have a mirror room in my house someday! I love the spot room vid and her paintings and everything! I really love her work!

  • larvaa_ November 14th, 2012 11:50 PM

    Yayoi Kusama literally IS the best person EVERRRR!! Im even basing my ceramics project off of her art while focosing on forms and of course the polka dots had to be incorporated somewhere! Researching on Yayoi was really exciting, I wanted to know more about. Gahhh she’s freaking amazingggg

  • ivoire November 14th, 2012 11:59 PM

    ah i love her! i remeber seeing huge billboards of her art in the city, but never figured out who the artist was.
    she is just great!

  • chloegrey November 15th, 2012 12:09 AM

    yeah when I was last in NYC looking at colleges there were posters on all the subway stops for her exhibit and it was so nice to have that slightly mysterious pop of just, I dunno, art and color, down there. It followed me even if it took me like an hour to find the right train to Brooklyn!
    oh and p.s. Anaheed I sounded a bit snooty I meant thanks in a nice way :)
    and p.p.s. i would FREAK OUT if I moved into a house with a mysterious mirror room in it somewhere, in either a good or bad way depending…

  • giov November 15th, 2012 1:12 AM

    totally wrote an essay on her for my art history class! quite interesting artist if I say so myself.

  • meels November 15th, 2012 2:03 AM

    Love Kusama, did a lot of things inspired by her last year and that exhibition at the Tate was amazing! Love how you included the wall of penises

  • z33zy November 15th, 2012 2:24 AM

    I loved this! What an inspiring lady. I’ll have to check out more of her work!

  • TessaTheTeenageWitch November 15th, 2012 2:51 AM

    I went to the Obliteration Room installation when it came to Brisbane, and by the time I went it was COMPLETELY COVERED in stickers. And I mean, there was seriously no white to be seen anywhere. Yayoi Kusama’s work is just such a positive energy/inspiration/joyous thing. For example in the Obliteration room there was a piano, and a man sat down and just played for the audience of little children for a good ten minutes while they all sat there in wonder. How amazing.

  • victoria November 15th, 2012 3:30 AM

    the way that Kusama deals with dots and the personal symbolic meaning that they hold for her really reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s relationship with paper/cloth/dimension. While others are kind of able to understand the meaning and the relevance of these things, their ambiguity really means that they exist on a highly personal level. Which isn’t a bad thing! It’s cool to have coded symbols that are personal to you in your art and writing.

  • Sorcha M November 15th, 2012 4:12 AM

    Omg I went to her Tate exhibition for my birthday this year and the Walking in My Mind one in Japan she is literally my favourite omg ROOKIE!!!
    Fireflies on the Water is my favourite. I stood in there for an hour.
    And her films are stunning too. She’s inspired me in so many ways I can’t even.

  • frabuleuse November 15th, 2012 5:13 AM

    Dear Arabelle,

    if you like Kusama, I think you might be interested in some artists of “art brut” as well…

    Art brut is the french term for “outsider art” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art). It’s definition is multi-faceted, but mainly supposes that the artist is without formal training and creates from compulsion. Often “art brut” artists do have some mental illness and their creative process is based on repetition of a motive or an idea,,, I do not think that Kusama can be classified as “art brut” because she does have artistic training, but really she makes me think of other faboulous artists such as Carlo (http://bit.ly/SOj6TY) Gill Madge (http://bit.ly/REAcVv) or Nek Chand (http://bit.ly/XbyfFX).

    In Lausanne where I live we have a fantastic museum that hosts the original collection of art brut. It is the most awesome place on earth.

    Some other fantastic art brut links:
    http://www.rawvision.com/
    http://www.hallesaintpierre.org/

    • Arabelle November 15th, 2012 11:26 PM

      Oooo thank you so much for all these recommendations, I will look into all of these!

    • Razzmatazzberry November 19th, 2012 2:03 AM

      I was in Lausanne this summer, and I got to see an amazing exhibit on the works of Aloise Corbaz, who was schizophrenic, and her works were discovered by an art brut collector. I wonder if it was at the museum you’re talking about? I thought of it when I read this article (which was really great btw!!) right away, though I don’t know how similar the two artists are.

  • MayaLily November 15th, 2012 5:21 AM

    Sorcha M did you go to prior Weston ? Sorry weird question if you didn’t !!

    • Sorcha M November 15th, 2012 12:04 PM

      No I didn’t! Not the Sorcha you’re looking for ;)

  • lauraelissa November 15th, 2012 6:33 AM

    this is awesome!! I’ve loved yayoi for years and I feel like only recently with things like the louis vuitton colab has she become really appreciated.
    I went to the dots exhibition in Brisbane, AUSTRALIA earlier this year and it was the BEST THING EVER. So fun and interesting how her mind works!
    love love love thanks rookie for sharing my love of her!!

  • mar9ar3t November 15th, 2012 6:36 AM

    I saw the Yayoi kusama exhibit at the Whitney this summer!!! It was sooooooooo cool especially the fireflies installation. I was so excited when I saw her face on rookie!!

  • Guinevere November 15th, 2012 7:41 AM

    Wow! I’ve seen some of her work in-person, but I never knew who was behind it all. She’s amazing.
    At the Phoenix Art Museum, there’s a Fireflies room, but no water (I’m *pretty* sure that she was behind this, too, but I’m not completely sure since I think it’s just called “Fireflies”…? I don’t know.), so you go can inside and walk around. It’s like being in space, kind of. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqF6IGaU0Yw

  • tturnthenoiseon November 15th, 2012 9:39 AM

    Yayoi Kusama 5ever

  • rockslita November 15th, 2012 9:52 AM

    Ahw this is such a great article!! It made me love Yayoi Kusama even more.

  • spudzine November 15th, 2012 10:13 AM

    This woman is really a role model to me. I feel like I can relate to her, especially with the OCD and anxiety problems she faces, and how she tries to manifest these emotions into artwork which can be loved and tolerated instead of viewed with the negative feelings of her diseases.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/

  • Freaky Hufflepuff November 15th, 2012 10:51 AM

    I´ve been in the mirror room (and seen everything else she had on Tate), and it was absolutely amazing! I really love Yayoi Kusama (though my fav is Agnes Martin) ^^

  • Jeanne November 15th, 2012 11:02 AM

    Oh how funny! I just planned to write a post about her. I love Kusama so much! I saw two of her exhibitions. One in Paris, another in Brussels and I even met her! She’s an amazing artist. Thank you for this cool post, thank you for existing, Rookie. You changed my life so much and made me more confident. YOU ARE LITTERALY THE BEST THING EVER!

    http://www.teenbadger.blogspot.be

  • SiLK November 15th, 2012 11:43 AM

    And all in time for Children in Need in the UK!! (very spotty fundraising) What’s that deliberate, or just one of the many Rookie coincidences?

  • Mary the freak November 15th, 2012 12:57 PM

    This was the first time for me to actually hear something about her. I mean, I already saw some pictures of her polka dotted room, but I never knew the artist behind this amazing stuff.
    And she’s amazing. Um, it’s pretty hard to describe my feelings, but… wow. just wow. She’s totally awesome.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • shelley November 15th, 2012 1:21 PM

    Any bored dot lovers, this is fun http://www.koalastothemax.com/

  • Caitlin H. November 15th, 2012 2:16 PM

    SO GOOD!

  • ♡ reba ♡ November 15th, 2012 2:25 PM

    …. just amazing? Yayoi Kusama is my new #1 artist. love it when Rookie post about artists they’re always so fab/inspiring :-) :-)

  • PZ November 15th, 2012 5:02 PM

    ah man i love this! i first heard of yayoi kusama in this song:

    http://youtu.be/0d5KxOgfUzQ

    love superchunk and love yayoi and love that superchunk loves yayoi. so great.

  • lianaisferal November 15th, 2012 7:48 PM

    O shit I love kusama!!! I saw her exhibit at the Whitney museum this past summer and it was heavenly

  • Coco Jane November 15th, 2012 8:59 PM

    LOVE her. I was Ms. Kusama for Halloween this year!!

    https://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-frc1/665503_666858922291_1621393720_o.jpg

  • purrr November 16th, 2012 9:20 AM

    I feel like I’ve stolen Arabelle’s life. Every article she writes on rookie hits the spot for me. If i had to choose my favorite Rookie articles (without knowing who wrote them) – 90% of them would be hers. When my friends ask me for advice, I feel like she’s talking through me and I’m just like, a microphone or something. And I just feel weird for wanting to buy all the things she has because I feel like a total copycat but I’M NOT ITS JUST THAT I LIKE THEM SO MUCH. It’s just really weird – there are A LOT OF COINCIDENCES that I notice more and more and I just don’t know what to think of it! I guess I should probably relax and send her some Lush bath bombs (look, Arabelle is totally controlling me. HELP! or don’t. I kind of like being like this.)

    Anyway, amazing article. I looked forward to it when I saw the preview, but I didn’t know that it would be Arabelle writing it – that just made me go check if I actually have Kusama postcards in my drawer or if I’m just going crazy and imagining that everything Arabelle says is relevant to my life

  • purrr November 16th, 2012 9:36 AM

    Also, I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but this article made me upload a picture I took of my friend at the Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern in like, April or June.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/grapefruitbrains/8189965701

  • vintagewhimsy November 18th, 2012 9:29 PM

    I didn’t know about Yayoi before this article, but now that I do, I agree that she is quite literally the best thing ever.

    http://vintagereverie.blogspot.com

  • andy November 21st, 2012 12:41 AM

    I just studied her in my art class! My crazy teacher who licks paintings and believes in fairies loves this crazy painter who can basically only see polka dots.

  • Avia03o November 28th, 2012 12:09 PM

    Last year I based a architecture project off of her “Obliteration Room”. I thought it was really interesting thinking about the different interpretations of the dot. Some observers thought they were memories and some thought they represented the usage of the building. Obviously she has her personal reasons for the dot but I think the different vague interpretations of such a direct and simple thing is really powerful.

  • Mintvirgin January 8th, 2013 3:43 AM

    I’ thirteen girl from Russia and I would like to say: this artist is so COOL! Her paintings encourage me all the time I know her name. I am so pleased to see article about her o Rookie.