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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Yayoi Kusama,1998

WITH MIDORI MATSUI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVID ORTEGA


"The art that grows out of my canvases forms an environment, aspires to build a new stage on our time, involving the audience who suffer from the same obsessions as mine." Thus wrote Yayoi Kusama in her brilliant faux autobiography, Manhattan Suicide Addict, an account of the years she spent in New York between the late '50s and the late '60s. Having left behind a strict family life in post-war Japan, Kusama entered a period of heightened creativity. She was free to make what she wanted, but plagued by fears of intimacy and inadequacy. Her art became a form of therapy, and she went on to create a unique body of work that not only parallels and transcends the Pop art, Minimal art and Happenings of the '60s, but has been influential for artists working today. The enduring fascination with Kusama suggests that her obsessions may have been ours as well.
After a number of years in Europe, Kusama returned to Tokyo in 1975, where she continues to live and work. While she is highly regarded today, in the '70s Kusama was presented by the Japanese press as a double-faced trickster — on one side, the Nudist Goddess in Manhattan surrounded by beautiful youth, and, on the other, the creator of stunning works of art, fashion, and literature. And because Kusama has lived voluntarily in a hospital for the mentally ill for the past twenty years, the renewed interest in her work was inevitably entwined with the mystique surrounding the artist herself.
I was nervous before meeting Kusama, but when I got to her spacious underground studio in Shinjuku, she greeted me warmly. Clad in a red dress and seated at the tea table, she seemed shy and expectant. As we spoke casually, looking through her catalogues and photos, I found Kusama to be a serene survivor who had turned her nightmarish sufferings into redeeming acts of creation.




MIDORI: You just had a large retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. How was that?
YAYOI: The show was great. It exhibited really rare works of mine that I myself had forgotten about for a long time. About a thousand people came to the opening. That's twice as large as the usual audience. And the opening party was a lot of fun, with so many young artists coming to talk with me. You know, coming back to Japan in '75, I really lagged behind in getting recognized. I came back for a little sojourn, but ended up staying longer.

MIDORI: You went to New York in 1957, and on your own. Weren't you lonely?
YAYOI: It was a war every day. It was so hard. For one thing, I had the language problem. I grew up during the Second World War, and English was prohibited. So I didn't get the chance to study it before going to the States.

MIDORI: But you chose New York instead of Paris, when so many Japanese artists were still looking to Europe.
YAYOI: I felt New York would become the center. I was attracted to its energy, and the timing was perfect. I came when a new artistic wave was starting all over America.
I didn't know a soul in New York, so I wrote to Georgia O'Keeffe. Her advice was that I must show everyone my paintings and must sell them. So I went out every day and showed my paintings to whomever I met. Donald Judd was the first person who bought a painting. He paid $200 in four payments.

MIDORI: And he was the first person to write about your work.
YAYOI: When I met him he was still a student, a writer rather than a visual artist. I would never have imagined that he would become famous. When he started making artwork, he would come to my studio asking, "Yayoi, what do you think of this color? Which do you think is better?"

MIDORI: Was there a real artists' community in New York back then?
YAYOI: Definitely. We were all poor but enthusiastic. We would go to a restaurant and pick up the bread they threw out. I would have nothing in the icebox for days. Eva Hesse also lived nearby, and she frequently dropped in to talk. I miss her. She was so sincere and really devoted to her art.

MIDORI: In the early '60s, you were making all-over "Net-paintings." There is a photo of you standing in front of one painting that is the entire length of the wall — more than thirty feet. Can you talk about how they developed?
YAYOI: As I was painting, absorbed, I realized that the net was spilling over the desk. I said, "Oh, my god." So finally, I was painting on the floor. And then, one day, when I woke up, I found a red net covering the window. "What's this?" I said, and went up to the window, and found the net covering my hand. The net was all over the place, up to the ceiling. When I looked at the furniture, it was all covered with the net. The entire room was covered with red net.

MIDORI: And from there you went on to do room-sized works — installations of soft sculptures?
YAYOI: Yes, I have a series of works called "Sex Obsession," in which I make many stuffed cloth phalluses and sew them onto various things. My first "Sex Obsession" piece was "One Thousand Boats Show," exhibited in the museum in Amsterdam in 1965. That was when the concept of my Net-painting was officially transferred to the three-dimensional medium of soft sculpture. At that time, I was really poor. So, I took my sheets and sewed together numerous phalluses on a second-hand sewing machine, filled them with the stuffing from the armchair I found in the junkyard, and attached them to various things in my room — burying my room under those luxuriating protrusions.

MIDORI: What do you mean by "Sex Obsession?" Were you afraid of sex?
YAYOI: Yes, I was. My family was really conservative, really uptight. I was really afraid of sex. It was a big taboo.
I liberated myself from the fear by creating these works. Their creation had the purpose of healing myself.

MIDORI: We usually try to eliminate what we are afraid of, putting it out of our sight and consciousness.
YAYOI: I cured myself of my obsessions by confronting them.

MIDORI: You also have a series of works entitled "Self-Obliterations," in which you cover everything with polka dots. How is the idea of "Self-Obliteration" related to that of "Sex Obsession?"
YAYOI: They are related, ultimately, through the image. You know, if there's a cat, I obliterate it by putting polka dot stickers on it. I obliterate a horse by putting polka dot stickers on it. And I obliterated myself by putting the same polka-dot stickers on myself.
We did a Happening at the Village Gate where people painted each other with polka dots with fluorescent paint under black light, and colorful lights flickered. You would see the dots, but all the outlines were obliterated in the darkness.

MIDORI: How did you feel being obliterated? Was it scary or groovy?
YAYOI: It was groovy.

MIDORI: Why?
YAYOI: Because I really hated myself.

MIDORI: Really? But I saw the picture in which you lie down in the sea of silver phallic sculptures, nude except for the high heels you were wearing. You looked so pretty, like a nymph.
YAYOI: I hated myself. But I was truly healed by the art I was making. Art enabled me to open up my heart, to face my own difficult character. Up to then, I was under the influence of the repressive education of my mother. I was afraid of everything. I was beaten several times a day, pushed around by her. She would set up a marriage to some rich local boy for me, trying to force me to marry a man I'd never met. She controlled everything about me. And when I deviated from her codes, she would be furious and drag me by the hair. She even restricted what I could or could not wear.

MIDORI: The dresses you wore during the '60s look so charming.
YAYOI: I made my dresses. I was angry then, so I smeared red and white paint over them.

MIDORI: You also made many clothing pieces, with flowers and phalluses sewed on. Are these flowers dahlias?
YAYOI: Yes. I imagined becoming one of the flowers. The performance was called "Dahlia Obliteration." In another performance, I walked holding an umbrella shaped like a flower.

MIDORI: You also made "Food Obliteration" pieces?
YAYOI: Yes, using macaroni. Just thinking of the several thousand macaroni dishes I consumed during my lifetime really pierced me with fear. You can neither die nor live with ease. You just keep eating or making love until the very day of your death, as though you were being carried along on a conveyor belt. I was really afraid of that. And it was very hard to cure myself of that fear. I got into psychotherapy in the States. But then, taking apart my obsessions by psychoanalysis dried up my creative energy. It was just a dissection. So, finally, I left behind making objects and started doing Happenings.

MIDORI: So, analytical dissection was no good?
YAYOI: I only needed art therapy.

MIDORI: In your case, eliminating what you fear is no solution. You must keep using what you fear as your artistic material over and again in order to be cured of your obsession.
YAYOI: Right.

MIDORI: You know, those clothes you made in the '60s — see-through dresses sprinkled with polka dots, silver or gold dresses adorned with dahlias, shoes with phallic protrusions and handbags laden with macaroni — are really popular with young people today. Nowadays, fashion-conscious people pay a lot for dresses like yours.
YAYOI: Oh, really? Maybe I made them too early.

MIDORI: And you also had your own fashion label at the time.
YAYOI: Yes, in 1968, in New York. I was window-shopping and found some dresses that looked like my creations. So I went to the company that manufactured those dresses to show them my work. I said, "I'm making these dresses which look exactly like yours." I ended up establishing a company with them. It was called Kusama Fashion Company Ltd.

MIDORI: You made these dresses with the holes.
YAYOI: Yeah, right in the butt, too.

MIDORI: But Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garons got famous by making dresses with holes! You were making these dresses back in the '60s. You sold them in the "Kusama Corner" at Bloomingdales.
YAYOI: Yes, but my flower child dresses sold very poorly. Conservative suits sold very well. It was so hard to sell avant-garde dresses with holes.

MIDORI: You also made a very unusual wedding gown at the time.
YAYOI: Yes, I presided over what must have been the first wedding party between two gay men in America. I made a dress for two, that is, a dress that two people could wear together. And for the ceremony, instead of a Bible, we used the New York City Telephone Book.

MIDORI: In this picture you're wearing polka dots in your hair and on your stockings. Were they made with paints?
YAYOI: These were made with Liquitex acrylic. Street performances were a lot of fun. We had awesome press coverage. At one time, I was even more famous than Andy Warhol.

MIDORI: Where did you do your Happenings?
YAYOI: In front of the statue of Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, and on Wall Street, and in front of the Statue of Liberty. We also did our open protest against the Nixon Administration at the voting office and the anti-war performance in front of the UN. This is the dress made for the Love Orgy. It's one big dress for four people, with holes cut for sticking out heads and arms. I myself have never joined a sex orgy. I was afraid of venereal disease.

MIDORI: But this dress makes me think of people from different backgrounds coexisting peacefully, rather than a love orgy.
YAYOI: Yes, "Love Forever" was the unifying title of various exhibitions from this time. This picture is a scene from a film entitled "Self-Obliteration."

MIDORI: I love this picture of you leaning on the horse. You and the horse are united through the polka dots. It looks as though your hearts are united. So despite the negative association of "self-obliteration," the project seems to have a really positive feeling.
YAYOI: That's right. I didn't consciously cultivate that aspect at that time. But I always had the theme, "Love Forever."

MIDORI: In this picture, many young people are dancing.
YAYOI: That performance was done in a discotheque. It united ritual and party. There was also the Happening at a theater in Cooper Square — some of our models wore police uniforms and barged in on us in the middle of our orgy, threatening to arrest us all. So the rest of us gathered around them, stripped them naked and smeared polka dot stickers on them. That was part of the show.

MIDORI: Did you hire the actors?
YAYOI: I recruited them and paid them. But many people came to be auditioned, and some offered to do it for free. Some of the audience got excited watching the performance and started taking off their clothes, asking me to put polka dots on them.
This picture shows us performing in front of the statue of Alice in Wonderland. Each of us wore makeup, impersonating Lyndon Johnson, Che, Castro, Marilyn. In this Happening in front of the Internal Revenue Service, we protested against wasting our tax money on the Vietnam War. The statue of George Washington seems to be begging us to wait a minute, with his hand holding us back. This is a scene from our love-in, which was also made into a video. It's me standing on the rock, in the middle of the nude performance. As the policemen came to arrest us, we made a barricade. They couldn't catch us.

MIDORI: I saw that in the video, with everyone protecting you and you skittering like a fairy.
YAYOI: But we were finally caught on another occasion. The police were watching us with binoculars from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. They were so puritanical even then.

MIDORI: Going back to your painting, there are dots and circles of many sizes. According to the color and density of the dots your paintings look like they're turning and wavering. Especially with your Net-paintings, I can feel the surface of the canvas surging up against me.
YAYOI: Waves are naturally generated as I paint, and that has a very good effect on me. For example, this yellow dot-painting that Frank Stella owns has patterns resembling the ripples of water. Such effects are really good for me, making me feel rhythm and vibration. I was producing about a hundred paintings and drawings every day in the early '60s.
You know, I never learned painting at school. In my New York days, I registered at an art school in order to secure my visa. But I was so busy painting in my studio that I hardly went to school.

MIDORI: You exhibited a psychedelic mirror room laden with colorful electric lights in an exhibition in Vienna last year. Was that a new work?
YAYOI: That was originally made in 1966, and reconstructed for the exhibition according to the blueprints. It's a piece with flickering electric lights. There are serial patterns of red lights fading in and out while white lights are going on and off. It makes you feel dizzy. The set was built by the technicians at my studio back then. I made sure it could be taken apart and carried anywhere.

MIDORI: This photo shows your celebrated installation, Narcissus Garden, at the 1966 Venice Biennale. It's so impressive to see so many silver spheres making up an artificial sea; it's even more fascinating to see oneself harmoniously integrated in a landscape that's reflected by the spheres.
YAYOI: When you stand among the balls, you see your face multiplied ad infinitum; when an airplane passes, that's mirrored in thousands.

MIDORI: How long had you been thinking about this open air installation?
YAYOI: I suddenly imagined it, and was driven by the urge to make it. I exhibited this work in Venice without formal invitation. Lucio Fontana lent me money, so I could go to Florence to order the balls. The balls were of such poor quality, easily dented, and very light. So the audience just took them home.

MIDORI: To see you lying in this ocean of silver spheres makes me think of your drift between this world and the world beyond.
YAYOI: That's true.

MIDORI: It makes me feel meditative.
YAYOI: Yes, but at that time, I was surrounded by a crowd, including the foreign press. I wasn't officially representing any country, but I drew so much attention. When I got to the airport, I found magazines whose covers showed me and my work. I bought them and took them home.

MIDORI: But you were officially invited to represent Japan in the 1993 Biennale.
YAYOI: Yes, I exhibited the Mirror Room that's now in the collection of the Hara Museum of Art.

MIDORI: The room in which pumpkins multiply?
YAYOI: The idea was to obliterate individuals and to contain them in the eternal world.
MIDORI: As you look into the room through the small hole, you get vertigo, affected by the trippy repetitions of yellow pumpkins with black dotted stripes. How did you get this sort of vision?
YAYOI: You know, I ate pumpkins ad nauseum during the wartime. Pumpkins also have very interesting shapes. This work here is called Revelation.

MIDORI: Did you actually have a revelation?
YAYOI: Yes. But doesn't everybody? You know, when the sun is up, there's light. That's what I call revelation — a kind of revelation for how one should live one's life. When it's night, there's a revelation of night.

MIDORI: This work, The Galaxy In My Dream, reminds me of the bottom of the ocean.
YAYOI: This is the sea bottom and these luminous things are living creatures.
MIDORI: Do you dream these landscapes?
YAYOI: I always see these landscapes in my dreams, and feel happy. I desperately try to transform these dreams into artwork, so that even while napping, I construct and reconstruct various images.

MIDORI: You've published many novels, including Manhattan Suicide Addict, The Hustler's Grotto of Christopher Street, and The Burning of St. Mark's Church. I read Manhattan and was impressed by its complexity — you captured the chaotic world of New York in the '60s while tracing your spiritual drift, mixing dream visions and events from reality. You mention many artists in the book, but one was completely crazy about you.
YAYOI: Joseph Cornell. Over there is the drawing he gave me. The old man wrote me so many letters. He was often a nuisance. He called me on the phone so often and held me on the line for so long that eventually others complained, "Yayoi, is your phone broken?" I had many other boyfriends.

MIDORI: Who were they?
YAYOI: Many were very gentle, even feminine sort of men. Some were really famous, like Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith.

MIDORI: But I feel that your true friend was Donald Judd, who had bought and written about your work.
YAYOI: He was very thoughtful and fair-minded. He was my boyfriend. When he got married, we lived in the same building — he upstairs, me downstairs. But way before then, we were lovers.

MIDORI: Your relationship with Cornell is public now, but the others ...
YAYOI: I hid the fact. I was afraid of jealousy.

MIDORI: I know that you have a new novel coming out. Had you always wanted to be a writer?
YAYOI: Since I was a teenager. When I was working at a parachute factory during the war, I was dying for novels, which were so hard to come by. I wanted to be a novelist then. My new book is called Violet Obsession.

MIDORI: What's it about?
YAYOI: It's about a private school that takes care of children who have problems communicating with adults. Many autobiographical details from my childhood are included. My mother beat me and told the neighbors that I should not have been born. I was the only one among her children that she mistreated.

MIDORI: There are passages in Manhattan Suicide Addict where you describe your fears, and it's very poignant, very moving. Did you think of killing yourself?
YAYOI: Very often. The impulse came to me pathologically. I suddenly saw a white curtain falling. Everything I saw receded, and I found myself trembling. I would cling to a pillar. If I moved even slightly I would run to the window and throw myself out.
This phobia cannot be cured, since it's caused by the trauma from my childhood. I got constant verbal harassment and physical punishment from my mother until I was six years old. At that age I had my first experience of seeing the white curtain come down, and violet blossoms pop out from the tablecloth. Taking medication is the only way to bring me back from this state to the normal one. When I'm in that state, I can't go home. I have to stay in the hospital. Even now.

MIDORI: Do any of your artist friends still visit you?
YAYOI: No, hardly anybody visits me nowadays. Not for the last ten years. I receive many fan letters, though.

MIDORI: How about friends from New York?
YAYOI: Donald Judd once visited me in Tokyo. He said he would love to live here. New York has an artist community; Tokyo doesn't. But then, if I lived in New York, I'd have to go to parties every night. I begrudge that time. You know, I must really work hard. I'm in the last stage of my artistic life. A friend from my Matsumoto childhood sometimes calls, saying that two friends pass away every year. Some of my friends have suffered from strokes. But I'm so busy that I can't even think of dying. I fly all over the world, drive everywhere, and when I get home, I find interviewers and photographers and TV shows waiting for me. No wonder I'm so busy.

MIDORI: What kind of work do you want to make now? YAYOI: That's a secret.
MIDORI: What are your future plans then, generally speaking?
YAYOI: I want to live two or three hundred years to do all the things I want to do. I really need more time to think. I want to explore myself — my aesthetics, my relation to the world.

© index magazinetobias
Yayoi Kusama by David Ortega, 1998
© index magazinetobias
Yayoi Kusama by David Ortega, 1998

 
 

 

Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller