Yayoi Kusama: Giving birth to a soul

Yayoi Kusama: Giving birth to a soul
Yayoi Kusama concentrates on her latest work at her studio in Tokyo.

Just as there seem to be endless motifs of netting and polka dots in her artwork, the praise for the work of avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama shows no signs of ending.

In addition to showing at exhibitions both at home and abroad, Kusama, 85, also received an award this January at the ninth Ango Awards, which is organised by the Niigata city government and is given to individuals and organisations trying to "put spirit into contemporary society."

At her studio in central Tokyo, the walls of the first two floors of the three-story studio are tidily lined with her recent works. Her personal atelier is on the second floor, where she works.

Kusama sat in a chair, quietly working on "My Eternal Soul," a multipart piece that was arranged horizontally on a table in the centre of the room.

Painted on the vast canvas were faces in profile, eyeballs, and figures of girls, all brilliantly coloured in yellow, blue, and pink.

"I also write from time to time, but painting is where ideas from my daily life really come out," said Kusama, as she continued to paint dots in sky blue. What resembles a labyrinth of the soul unfurls on the canvas in a palette comprising just a few colors.

Plagued by hallucinations since early childhood, Kusama sublimated her sufferings in the form of painting. She has been living in a hospital for nearly 40 years and walks a short distance to the studio from there, where she works nonstop from around 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"If we don't tell her to eat something, she forgets about meals entirely," said Isao Takakura, manager of Kusama Enterprises.

"I once worked [for days in a row], 10 hours a day, without eating, until I collapsed," Kusama said.

Recently, she experienced tenosynovitis in her painting arm.

However, Kusama is upbeat. "A lot of people my age go to hot springs and like to take it easy. When I relax, I feel out of sorts. I've dedicated my life to painting. I just can't help myself - I want to paint," Kusama said mildly.

Kusama left her hometown of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and moved to the United States in 1957.

Working out of New York, she created paintings and three-dimensional works featuring recursive patterns of netting and polka dots, while holding socially themed performance art revolving around the antiwar movement and sexual liberation.

After returning to Japan in 1973, she was once labelled as "an eccentric female artist," but in 1993, she represented Japan in the Venice Biennale, where she immediately drew the interest of young people in the arts in the Western world, eventually holding large-scale retrospectives there.

For the domestic traveling exhibition "Yayoi Kusama: Eternity of Eternal Eternity," which began in 2012, there were so many museums hoping to hold the event that the show was extended until last year from the original plan of one year.

Another of her shows has also been traveling through Central and South America since two years ago, and her works are going to Taiwan and India this year, followed by another traveling exhibition in museums in four Scandinavian countries starting in September.

"Ms. Kusama's work has now spread through the Internet, and art lovers in Asia and the West now show generally the same preferences when it comes to her work," said Hidenori Ota, of the eponymous Ota Fine Arts gallery in Tokyo's Roppongi, which has represented Kusama's work for many years. "In emerging nations in Asia, she is also looked at as a sort of icon for Asian artists."

The fine arts gallery held an exhibit of Kusama's prints this March, with 14 pieces that had been vividly printed in France on display.

"My major life goal is using art to express and contribute to world peace, love and a fundamental respect for humanity," Kusama said.

That goal seems well on its way to becoming a reality.

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