Magazine article Tate Etc.

Planting a Seed

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Planting a Seed

Article excerpt

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern II - One of the Japanese artist's earliest memories was of the seed-harvesting field in the plant nursery owned by her family, and since then organic motifs have been the central element of Kusama's work, providing powerful subject matter to reflect her restless state of mind

Damien Hirst:

Do you feel that your work is optimistic?

Yayoi Kusama:

No, I don't feel my work is optimistic. Each piece of work is a condensation of my life.

This is the opening salvo in a short conversation first published in the catalogue for a solo exhibition by Yayoi Kusama at Robert Miller Gallery in New York in 1998. It provides a telling encapsulation of the work of a legendary figure in the art of the past half century, as the artist wishes that work to be construed. Kusama's remarks on this, and on many other occasions, insist on, rather than merely validate, a reading of her oeuvre in biographical terms.

The lineaments of her life, as she has recounted it, are as dramatic as they are well-rehearsed. Bom in rural Japan in 1929 into a family; had an unhappy relationship with an abusive mother; has continually experienced hallucinations since childhood and been prone to morbid obsessions; received a traditional training in Japanese nihonga painting while also being exposed to European modernism; left Japan for New York in 1958, where she was highly active and visible, but returned to her homeland in 1973 on account of ill health; remains in Tokyo today, as tirelessly productive as ever, but living by choice in a mental hospital.

The mature works for which Kusama is best known are all structured according to a compositional principle of febrile proliferation: the "all-over" Infinity Net paintings, since the late 1950s; the stuffed-fabric sculptural agglomerations of phallic forms begun in the early 1960s; the dizzyingly recessive Mirror Rooms; the viral polka-dots with which she has, as she once put it, "obliterated cats, dogs, a horse, rocks, lakes, mountains, New York City and the Statue of Liberty"; even the unbridled flow of her writings. As early as 1964 she described one of her sculptural aggregations as "a logical development of everything I have done since I was a child, it arises from a deep, driving compulsion to realise in visible form the repetitive image inside of me".

In the light of such persistent assertions, it is not surprising that previous commentators have found confirmation of a life-long continuity of concerns in the scant but fascinating evidence of works from her student days and earlier. Lingering Dream (1949), for instance, is one of the few nihonga pieces from Kusama's student days that she chose to preserve rather than destroy. Executed in mineral pigments on paper, this image derives from the memory of a seed-harvesting field that formed part of a nursery owned by her family in the town of Matsumoto, where she grew up. The nightmarish depiction of crimson sunflowers in a state of convulsive decay, among which a few green butterflies flutter about, bears comparison with the dreamscapes of European Surrealism, though Kusama claims to have been unaware of such precedents at the time.

From Lingering Dream we might follow a strain through her mature work right up to the giant polka-dotted pumpkins and writhing psychedelic flora of the more recent sculptures and installations, which is to say the proliferating images of various organic materials: seeds, flowers, fruit, leaves and plants, as well as sundry unidentified micro-organisms. …

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