The Princess of Polka Dots: Using Art as a Medium to Cope with Hallucinations

By Suma, K.; Chandran, Suhas et al. | Indian Journal of Psychiatry, January-March 2018 | Go to article overview

The Princess of Polka Dots: Using Art as a Medium to Cope with Hallucinations


Suma, K., Chandran, Suhas, Rao, T. Sathyanarayana, Indian Journal of Psychiatry


Byline: K. Suma, Suhas. Chandran, T. Sathyanarayana Rao

Sir,

Thoughts are usually expressed in the form of language, music, and art. For individuals with mental disorders, it can be challenging to express their ideas and emotions. In patients who are otherwise unable or unwilling to vocalize or explain the inner workings of their minds, art therapy can be a novel way to break the communication barrier. Art therapy can take a variety of forms and can be used as a form of interaction with their therapist, to potentially help in elucidating conflicts, defenses, and thoughts that may not be verbalized by the patient.

There are many examples of artists who used art as coping mechanisms to ease symptoms of mental disorders. The iconic work "The Scream" by Edvard Munch was in fact inspired by one of his hallucinations. However, the most prominent instance of this phenomenon in recent times is that of Yayoi Kusama, an 88-year-old Japanese contemporary artist, aptly called the princess of polka dots. Most of her art is in the form of sculpture and installations, but she is also well known for her paintings, poetry, fiction literature, film, performance art, and fashion. Countless artworks created by her are displayed in museums across the world, and according to her, she is inspired by hallucinations which comprised of "flashes of lights, auras, dense fields of dots".[1] Yayoi Kusama's Walking Piece is a performance art, and "Kusama's Self-Obliteration" is a film she both produced and acted in.

Kusama was born in 1929, and around the age of 10, she began to experience hallucinations; she perceived patterns moving, multiplying, engulfing everything around her and finally consuming her, a process she termed "Self Obliteration." She began to paint out her visions, which she felt helped her gain control of anxiety and provide an outlet for her intense psychological turmoil. The origin of her obsession with polka dots started with looking at pebbles in a riverbed near her childhood home. She has called herself an "obsessional artist," with polka dots permeating all aspects and forming a central theme of her various works [Figure 1]. The Infinity Room is an illusion of never ending space, created by light and mirrors [Figure 2]. The famed yellow pumpkins with black polka dots have been exhibited in various forms around the world [Figure 3]. Her Self-Obliteration piece depicts the polka dots surrounding and engulfing her [Figure 4].{Figure 1}{Figure 2}{Figure 3}{Figure 4}

She had a disturbing childhood, with her mother being physically and emotionally abusive, forcing her daughter to spy on her husband's extramarital affairs because of which she developed a strong aversion to the male body and an obsession with sexuality. She said, "the sexual obsession and the fear of sex sit side by side in me."[2] Her artworks contain sexual themes, especially her soft sculptures, which have protruding phallic structures attached all over them.

When she was 13, she was sent to work at a military factory during World War II. Listening to the sirens while sitting in the dark workroom had a lasting impression on her future artworks.

She was later permitted to study art at a university in Kyoto but was only allowed to practice "Nihonga," a traditional form of Japanese art, which robbed her of her creative freedom. Eventually, the imposed conformity stifled her and she moved to New York in 1958.

While in New York, she quickly gained popularity and became an integral part of the avant-garde art circles. She organized various "Happenings" across the city, which often involved her painting dots on participants' naked bodies, with the intention of breaking down barriers associated with gender identity, sexuality, and oppression in society, which also included antiwar themes.

She moved back to Japan due to her failing health, after which she started living in a hospital for the mentally ill on her own accord, where she continues to live. …

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