Featured in
Issue 233

Yayoi Kusama’s Hallucinatory Overabundance

A major retrospective at M+, Hong Kong recounts the artist’s seven-decade career in her own words

BY Ophelia Lai in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 27 DEC 22

Yayoi Kusama’s major retrospective at Hong Kong’s M+ museum opens with a self-portrait: the artist as a young woman, covered in black dots, against a yellow-on-black net background. The 2015 painting bears the hallmarks of the Kusama that everyone knows today: the bold palette, the profuse patterning, even the subject’s blunt bob. But what is more intriguing about this work – and more pertinent to the story that curators Doryun Chong and Mika Yoshitake set out to tell – is the artist’s persona. Examining a longer period than typical exhibitions of the Japanese icon, ‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’ reveals an artist who has always been preoccupied with the relationship between interior and exterior, connecting the recurring motifs of Kusama’s seven-decade career to her longstanding engagement with self, space and spectacle.

An abstract canvas of two canvases covered by tiny abstract marks in light blue on white that look vaguely like ocean ripples
Yayoi Kusama, Pacific Ocean, 1960, oil on canvas, 183 × 183 cm. Courtesy: the artist

‘Infinity’, the first of the show’s six loosely chronological and thematic sections, links Kusama’s obsessive, hallucinatory gaze with her aspirations to evoke a sense of unbounded organicity. In Pacific Ocean (1960), the original ‘infinity net’ painting, dense white loops of thickly applied oil sprawl across the grey background. A pale wash settles like mist over the composition. Inspired by the sight of distant waves from the airplane window during her first flight from Japan to the United States, the work is at once hermetic and expansive, expressing the vastness of nature through minute and repetitive gestures. This thread in her work is exemplified by the astonishingly intricate tendrils in Sprouting (1992), and the red cell-like orbs in Accumulation of Stardust (2001).

A white chair covered with sculptural white phallus-like objects
Yayoi Kusama, Untitled (Chair), 1963, sewn stuffed fabric, wood, and paint 81 × 93 × 92 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Yayoi Kusama Foundation

Kusama’s neurotic sensibilities are externalized in less romantic ways. Created in the 1960s as a kind of self-administered exposure therapy, a series of works allude to the artist’s sexual anxieties as well as the grotesque excesses of consumer capitalism. Untitled (Chair) (1963) and Golden Shoes (1965) consist of familiar domestic objects adorned with crude fabric phalluses. Nearby, Self-Obliteration (1966–74) conjures a psychedelic dinner party in which everything – mannequins, furniture, plastic fruit – is painted over in multi-coloured ‘infinity nets’. The curators heighten the sense of absurd overabundance by installing the work on a carpet of dried pasta, a material the artist has used to confront her revulsion at processed food.

A couple of objects in a row, all covered in white phalluses, and a pair of high-heeled shoes.
‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and M+, Hong Kong; photograph: Lok Cheng

Kusama’s whimsical and wildly popular aesthetic belies the tensions that undergird her practice, the interplay of nature and artifice, seduction and disgust. One might also question the opposition between self-negation and narcissism. The section ‘Radical Connectivity’ documents the artist’s 1960s professional endeavours and happenings, featuring DIY posters, press releases and footage of ‘anatomic explosions’ in which she daubed paint spots onto naked bodies at New York protests against the Vietnam War. Per Kusama, being blotted out by dots represents an ego death that makes way for cosmic unity, but is this quirky idealism or an imposition of her singular vision?

A yellow square canvas full of colorful faces, blobs, amoeba-like shapes
Yayoi Kusama, Pound of Repose, 2014, acrylic on canvas,194 ×194 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

Chong and Yoshitake allow for these tensions to surface, emphasizing not only the complexity of her practice but also her agency as a storyteller. This is apparent in the somewhat hokey transition from ‘Death’ – a section on the imprint of trauma and mental illness – to ‘Force of Life’, a vibrant finale showcasing more recent paintings from the series My Eternal Soul (2009– ongoing). These folk art-style renderings of faces and amoeba-like forms carry breathless titles such as Exaltation of Enormous Love Gleaming Within Us (2019).

The triumph of art over suffering is a dubiously neat conclusion considering the artist has voluntarily spent the past 45 years in a Tokyo psychiatric facility, but it is part of Kusama’s self-perpetuated mythos. The retrospective’s diligent recounting of the artist’s life, largely in her own words, is not the most groundbreaking curatorial approach, yet the 94-year-old Kusama remains an eccentric and charismatic subject.  

‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’ is on view at M+, Hong Kong, until 14 May 2023

Main image: Yayoi Kusama, Between Heaven and Earth, 1987, mixed media, set of five, 180 × 180 × 12 cm

Ophelia Lai is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong.