|The Dotty Art of Yayoi Kusama Comes to Louis Vuitton|
|Author:Sheryl Garratt Resource:telegraph 2012-07-09 14:05:21|
Overlooked for years by the art establishment, 83-year-old Yayoi Kusama's dotty vision is finally being recognised – and is at the heart of a major collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
There are spots before my eyes. I am at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan, where crowds are flocking to a big exhibition of Yayoi Kusama's work. Dots are a recurring theme in her art, a visual representation of the hallucinations and anxiety attacks she has suffered from since childhood, so the show is dominated by giant red polka-dotted spheres, and a disorienting room in which huge white fibreglass tulips are covered in red dots – as are the white walls, ceiling and floor.
There's one of her unsettling infinity mirror rooms, illuminated by seemingly endless floating dots of light, and a giant pumpkin crawling with a distinctive pattern of dots she calls Nerves. But unlike her retrospective at Tate Modern in London, which ran from February to June this year, the emphasis here is on her recent paintings: one long gallery is filled with monochrome works, another with paintings so bright they hurt the eyes. The same primitive, repetitive motifs occur in all of them: dots, eyes, faces, zigzag patterns, amoebic blobs and snakelike forms bristling with cilia.
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The sheer number is overwhelming, dizzying. When she was based in New York, her phallus sculptures and naked hippie 'happenings' were seen as scandalous and shameful by many in her home country, but the scale of this show is an indication of her standing in Japan, where she is fast becoming a national treasure.
The next day, I am invited to Kusama's studio in a backstreet of the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, a short walk away from her private room in Siewa Hospital, a psychiatric unit where she has been a voluntary in-patient since 1977 and which she rarely leaves, except to work. Her studio is a cramped concrete and glass building, with cardboard boxes of supplies stacked up to the ceiling, the walls covered in racks of finished paintings, works in progress and blank canvases, a grey paint-spattered industrial carpet and a scruffy old office chair at the table where Kusama works under a glaring neon strip light. Dotty: Yayoi Kusama
She usually paints in comfortable pyjamas, one of her assistants tells me, her grey hair pulled up into a bun, but today she is upstairs having her hair and make-up done, ready to greet her guests.
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When she finally comes down in the lift, a frail but colourful 83-year-old resplendent in a red wig and polka-dot ensemble, pushed in a polka-dotted wheelchair, she asks an assistant to show us some press cuttings of the Tate show, especially one from a paper from Matsumoto City, where she grew up. There's something touching about this need to prove herself, but it's also confusing – akin to J K Rowling showing off a review in The Gloucestershire Echo to verify that she is a published author.
Talking to Kusama can be a surreal experience. She is easily distracted, and although she lived in America for 20 years, she now speaks no English. She is surrounded by a team of assistants who translate for her, addressing her with respect as 'sensei' ('master' or 'teacher'), and with whom she often seems to have long discussions before answering even the blandest questions. It's hard to know what is being lost in translation, and what is down to the vagaries of age and health. But occasionally a question will engage her, and you'll get a brief but fierce flash of the intelligence and focus she has so clearly poured into her work over the years.
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Finally she sits down to paint, leaning over a large gold canvas covered in blue designs, her brush adding thick red patterns over the blue. An assistant hovers at her shoulder ready to wipe away the odd accidental drip, but on the whole Kusama's hand is steady and she works quickly, decisively, her face bent to the canvas. It's an uncomfortable way of working, and she says she often suffers with her back as a result, but can no longer stand up to paint. Many of her physical problems, she adds, stem from her years in New York. 'I was working too hard at the time, and I was on my knees for so long that I damaged them. It was because of things like that that I decided to come back to Japan.'
Born in 1929 in Matsumoto City in central Japan, Kusama was the unloved younger daughter of an unhappy marriage. Her mother was the only daughter of a prosperous family who owned a thriving seed nursery business in the Japanese mountains. Her father was forced to take his wife's family name, and retaliated by having a string of affairs, and by running off to Tokyo for a while to live with a geisha.
Caught between her warring parents, Kusama found refuge in art, drawing obsessively from early childhood. But her ambitions to paint professionally were crushed by her family, who were deeply conventional: women from her background could collect art, but not create it. 'My parents said they would buy me as many clothes as I wanted, but anything to do with painting was absolutely out of the question,' she says, which is why some of her earliest works were painted on hessian seed sacks, using paints mixed with sand and organic materials she found nearby.
'My mother was very strong-willed. My elder sister had married into one of the richest families in Matsumoto City, and my parents wanted me to achieve a similar marriage. But I had no desire for such a life, because if I got married, I would be unable to continue painting. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of lecturing. My parents planned to marry me off to someone from a good family background and social standing, but I didn't know him. So I left home and never came back.'
Kusama went to Kyoto to train in traditional Japanese painting, although she rebelled against it immediately and longed to become part of a more innovative art scene in Paris or New York. But although travel outside the country became possible for Japanese nationals after the Second World War, it was still very difficult to get the relevant permits. She even wrote to Georgia O'Keeffe, the only female American painter she could find, asking for help. (O'Keeffe responded to her letters and came to visit her protégée when Kusama finally made it to New York.) She was eventually granted permission to leave Japan when she was 27 in 1956, with money sewn into her clothes and silk kimonos to sell while she established herself as an artist.
In New York she became friends with struggling fellow artists such as Donald Judd, the minimalist sculptor, and slowly achieved recognition, but nowhere near that of her male peers: as a foreigner and as a woman, she was twice the outsider. But she continued, doggedly, to work and to innovate. Her 1001 Boats installation (which was included in the Tate show) was a rowing boat covered in fabric phalluses, then photographed and reproduced a dizzying 1,000 times across the floor, walls and ceiling of the gallery. She invited her friend Andy Warhol along when it was first shown in 1963; a few years later he was celebrated for decorating the surfaces at one of his shows with similarly repetitive silkscreened images of a cow's face.
'For her it was infuriating that she did it first and then Warhol got all the acclaim,' says Glen Scott Wright of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, who has worked with Kusama for several years. 'It was the same with Claes Oldenberg and Lucas Samaras. These guys were taking her ideas and becoming successful, getting the big galleries, selling work, making money, while she was being ignored by the market and the establishment.'
When the hippie era began, Kusama found a world in which she belonged. She surrounded herself with young gay men and organised 'happenings' – protesting against the Vietnam War, and campaigning for gay rights and sexual liberation. She designed shockingly revealing clothes, wrote and produced a musical, and began staging parties where people could pay to daub naked hippies with paint. 'I felt there was a need to fight with my art,' she says, 'to create a new form of civilisation.'
Yet despite posing nude and even publishing a magazine called Kusama's Orgy, the artist herself remained curiously asexual. She has often said that the phallus was a recurring image in her sculptures because she was so revolted by it, while her only long-term relationship in the New York years was with the artist Joseph Cornell, who was impotent and lived with his overbearing mother. The closest the relationship came to consummation was when the couple would sit naked, drawing portraits of each other. Even now, she shudders when asked if she got over her fears. 'I don't like sex,' she says.
In her autobiography Infinity Net, published in English by Tate in 2011, she describes Warhol, with his Factory crew, and herself with her gay assistants at her Kusama Enterprises, as 'like rival gang leaders'. But while Warhol's reputation in the art world soared, Kusama's happenings devalued her other work. Ill, exhausted and creatively burnt out, she returned to Japan for what she thought would be a temporary stay, had a breakdown and ended up checking into Seiwa Hospital in 1977.
By then her parents were dead, although there is a moving passage in her autobiography in which she talks about forgiving, and even growing to understand, their cruelty. And here, in the hospital, her story could well have ended, were it not for a desire to create that seems irrepressible. She no longer had a studio or even a home, but she began writing novels and poetry that gained her a growing following in Japan, then began producing new artworks.
Slowly, her reputation grew, and her earlier work came to be reassessed. There were important shows in Britain and in the States, and she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993. The art world, too, was changing, and Kusama wasn't the only female artist whose work was re-examined. 'Women were just not taken that seriously by the male-dominated art world in the past,' Scott Wright says. 'But we're in a very different art world now. It's virtually run by women.'
Now Kusama's thoughts are starting to focus on her legacy. Her team is overseeing the construction of a new five-floor building opposite the current studio, which will eventually house a private museum and an extensive archive, as well as a bigger studio and administrative offices. At the moment, however, she is more concerned that it is also going to be earthquake-proof.
During the 2011 earthquake in Japan, she was so frightened that she ran outside on to the street. 'I am very afraid of nature, especially at night. I was asleep, and the building shook so badly that I ran out in my bare feet. The earthquakes [aftershocks] kept on for a long time, there were dozens of them. That's why we're hurrying to construct this building. We consulted a specialist in earthquake-resistant construction.' Despite this, she has no plans to live there. 'It's very comfortable at the hospital,' she says.
The Tate show was an indication that the wider art establishment has, finally, recognised Kusama as a major talent. In 2008 one of the large Infinity Net paintings made during her early, poverty-stricken days in New York sold at auction for just over $5 million. But Kusama is still unsure of her place in art history, and needs reassurance: while the Tate's curator Frances Morris was working on the exhibition, Kusama asked if it would make her as famous as Donald Judd.
She takes us upstairs to see the cramped office where her administrative team works. Amid the usual office clutter of computers, papers and books, there are spare wigs sitting on stands, tiny maquettes for the huge fibreglass sculptures, and a photo of Kusama with Marc Jacobs on prominent display. 'I was very happy when he came to visit,' she says. 'He brought me a big bunch of flowers.'
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Since taking charge of the luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton in 1997, Jacobs – a keen art collector – has initiated collaborations with several contemporary artists, from Richard Prince to Takashi Murakami. But the partnership with Kusama, to be launched this month, has produced the most varied collection of products so far. Kusama's collaboration with Vuitton: sunglasses £350, zippy wallet, £595; money purse, £20; pumps, £710.
I had first encountered Kusama at Louis Vuitton's Bond Street flagship store in London in February. She had made the journey to Britain to attend the opening party for her Tate exhibition, the first time she had left Japan in 12 years. A couple of days later, the Vuitton store's staff were gathered in the first-floor art gallery ready to greet the artist. Here there was a selection of her recent work, from films and sculpture to paintings, and the shop's main entrance area was dominated by one of her huge, brightly coloured flower sculptures.
'Smile!' Tom Meggle, Vuitton's MD for Britain and Ireland, instructed his team. 'And keep smiling for the next 20 minutes!' But once Kusama's polka-dot wheelchair was pushed in, the smiles became genuine, the applause far more than just polite. There is something instantly endearing about Kusama, who had dressed up for the occasion in another vibrant wig and polka-dot ensemble.
Afterwards, she took a lift up to the private apartment above the store, where one of her recent paintings hangs alongside an impressive collection of work by artists such as Gilbert & George, and a line of Vuitton top brass was waiting to welcome her. Kusama, however, had eyes only for her picture, shooing them out of the way so that she could admire it before finally acknowledging her hosts.
I asked where she gets the energy to continue making work at such a prolific rate. 'I don't honestly know,' she replied. 'I don't think about creating the art myself, it's just my hands move and they do it. It's not as though I put any intellectual energy into thinking about it, it just develops by itself. It's wonderful, it's a mystery how it all happens.'
For the Vuitton collaboration, her polka dots and the nerves pattern are featured on wallets, bags, sunglasses, scarves, bikinis and beach towels and clothes, the first of which are due in store this month. My favourites are a pair of red patent polka-dot heels that look as though they could be owned by Minnie Mouse, and a gorgeously soft, transparent mac covered in black dots.
For the launch, Kusama has designed dramatic window displays for the Bond Street shop, and a pumpkin pop-up shop for Selfridges on Oxford Street, which will also devote its windows to the collection. But still desperate for reassurance, in Tokyo she asks again and again whether we like the Vuitton product, if Marc Jacobs is happy with it, and repeats that she would like to do more.
In the 1970s, she says, the clothes she created were stocked by outlets such as Bloomingdales, and she could have moved into fashion. Then, when her novels began winning awards in Japan, she could have reinvented herself as a writer. She enjoys making all these things, and music too, but in the end, the art always pulled her most strongly.
'I've been active in many different spheres of the arts, whether it be writing novels, creating fashion or pure art by itself. What I would like to put across through all of my art is, I suppose, questions of what human life is, what humans are about, what the earth is about, what the universe is about. And the single message is, really, "love forever".'
It is these two words that adorn much of the merchandise for sale, and if that seems trite we should remind ourselves that Kusama lived through a devastating war and saw nuclear bombs wipe out two Japanese cities. For her it is no mere slogan: it is a message she has spent her life communicating, a struggle that has come at great personal cost. 'Love is the most important thing,' she says. 'Peace is a very important part, but if you wanted to sum it all up in one word, that word would be love.'
The Louis Vuitton/Yayoi Kusama collaboration will be in Louis Vuitton stores from Tuesday. A pop-up store will open in Selfridges, London, on August 24