There are three things in New York I would have given anything to see—Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park, Andy Warhol’s first solo exhibition, and Yayoi Kusama’s I Who Have Arrived in Heaven show at the David Zwirner Gallery. Though I wasn’t yet alive for the first two, the latter ended only last year amidst rave reviews and Instagram selfies, mostly concerning Kusama’s latest mirrored infinity room.
The room, titled The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, glitters like a universe of its own. With reflective walls and floors, it is shrouded in darkness save for hundreds of twinkling lights. The installation comes face to face with death and the cosmos and the unknown and infinity. The lights seem endless, and in this art environment the concept seems visually ubiquitous and reasonable but is in truth vast and incomprehensible. It is so much of everything that it becomes nothing—for how can you possibly fathom infinity?
I first became conscious of Yayoi Kusama a couple of years ago during my internship at In The Make, a small San Francisco-based art publication. As an aspiring writer lost in the confusion of fashion school, I eased into the internship quietly. The two women for whom I worked are startlingly brilliant, inimitable to the core, and their enthusiasm for female artists is heartening and inspiring. Always aloof, I listened raptly to every word they uttered from my side desk, soaking up each name that leaked from their conversations with fervor.
Before hearing Yayoi Kusama trail from their lips, I had perhaps seen portraits of her slathered in red or yellow dots around the internet, a magazine article here or there, a news item of an art entity lingering in the stratosphere. But what I soon learned was that Kusama is much more than an eccentric, and she has spent her artistic life grappling with the very polka-dots she depicts, exposing them to the world in order to make sense of her formative years.
Growing up in Matsumoto City, Japan in the thirties, Kusama heard voices and suffered from hallucinations throughout her childhood. Fields of violets spoke to her. The flowers on tablecloths would suddenly replicate on any visible surface—the walls, the floor, her own body. Flowers, nets, and dots made their way onto everything, the world becoming one seamless scene. It is because of these experiences that Kusama’s canvases are filled with intricate netted patterns, why she swathes rooms and horses and self-portraits in bright, contrasting polka-dots.
“By continuously reproducing the forms of things that terrify me,” she says in her autobiography, “I am able to suppress the fear.” Kusama confronts these fears readily, inserting herself into environments where images overwhelm and consume her. In one photo collage from the sixties, a naked Kusama is stretched out on her stomach atop a couch of soft-sculpture phalluses, surrounded by intricate netting patterns and dry pasta. She is covered in dots and peers wide-eyed at the camera over her shoulder. I think of her youth, years spent trying to comprehend the line between reality and dreams, evenings when the sky would darken and then particles would blaze around her. I try to place myself in her kitchen, patterns weaving along my body, melting into the background. A woman living in perpetual uncertainty. A woman trapped within the confines of her mind.
Kusama felt the need to escape her home in order to break away from an angst-ridden, conservative and traumatizing upbringing. Though she had spent four years away from her family at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts and was becoming an established artist through shows in Tokyo, Kusama knew that her emotionally abusive parents would extend their reach wherever she went. Japan was a pressure-cooker that she had inhabited for too long. After making her way through various American cities, she ended up in New York at the age of twenty-nine.
Having sketched and painted throughout her life to cope with and document her hallucinations, Kusama brought thousands of small works with her to the city, and in near poverty scraped money together to buy art supplies. Kusama would paint vigorously for hours on end, day after day the same tedious, delicate patterns on canvases. The netting began to regularly meander onto the walls, Kusama’s arms—quickly she found herself returning over and over to Bellevue Hospital in Lower Manhattan. She would frequent mental institutions throughout her life, but regardless of these continuing struggles she found success only fifteen months after arriving in New York.
I’ve never been to New York, the land of struggling and successful artists and writers (there’s no middle ground). Compared to Seattle, where Kusama had stayed previously, she initially considered New York “hell on earth.” Though my opinions come from afar, I can understand her frustration—I don’t pine for the facades of grey skyscrapers, neon ticker tape madness, gridlocks of cacophonous taxicabs. Crowds are stressful; I can’t even imagine the suffocating subways during the holidays or being within a hundred mile radius of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Yet still, there is something about the promise of the place—inspiration, publication, fame.
What is it about New York—a city I’ve never been to, a city that is almost too clichéd to write in, a city that is the antithesis to everything I have experienced and believed in thus far—that draws my wandering thoughts?
Kusama’s first New York solo exhibition, Obsessional Monochrome, was held at the Brata Gallery, an artist-run co-op, in October 1959. The paintings featured repetitive black and white patterns, harkening back to her childhood memory of being caught in an infinity net, where she was “restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.”
The idea of infinity emerges prominently in Kusama’s work. Her subtle infinity nets convey the overpowering sensation of the never-ending, though Kusama’s body of work extends well past canvas or collage. (Other ventures over the years have included hippie-filled, sex-fuelled performance art “Happenings”; “Narcissus Garden,” a “kinetic carpet” of mirrored spheres which Kusama began to sell to random passersby; and mass-produced garments that sold in the likes of Bloomingdale’s.)
Kusama tries to heal herself by exploring infinity through the visual language that imprisoned her, akin to driving unwaveringly into the night without headlights to cure a fear of the dark. Her work is self-proclaimed “art-medicine,” and she seeks to “create, then obliterate”—with a backdrop of polka-dots that descend upon her body, she becomes one with her world. Timeless, endless, embracing the fear.
But it is more than fear—it is simply her reality. “I cannot cease to be; nor can I escape death,” she says. “There are times when consciousness of continuous existence drives me quite mad. Before and after creating a work I fall ill, menaced by obsessions that crawl through my body – although I cannot say whether they come from inside or outside of me.”
Miserable in her first months on the East Coast, Kusama would frequent the Empire State Building, “standing at the threshold of all worldly ambition, where truly anything was possible.” Equipped only with her fears and creativity, Kusama embarked on an avant-garde legacy that was waiting for her. It was a path to recovery, but in particular it was a new artistic movement that she hungered for, the promise of which, she says, alleviated her growling stomach as she nearly starved. New York was it—a hellish nightmare at times, a bounty of prosperity at others.
When I think of all the excuses that keep me on the West Coast, it is not only that New York is crowded and noisy and hectic and too far away from my home in California. It is me—I am afraid. Afraid of possibility, of a life I could never imagine or plan for, a future obscured. I have met the boundaries of this place, and am entertaining the idea of the clichéd New York, the art mecca and writer’s promised land, the city that never sleeps, for I rarely do either. I am not one for change, not a frequent starter of new beginnings.
Despite this, I am ready for something, because even though I didn’t make it to I Who Have Arrived in Heaven, even though I didn’t snap a photo of myself surrounded by a dreamworld of ethereal LEDs, I can feel the spring chill from waiting in a line that circled the block. I close my eyes and feel the taxicab that took me there; I taste the cheap coffee and stale croissant from breakfast. I sit on the airplane, two bursting suitcases and four duct-taped boxes tucked below deck, twitching in anticipation. I stand on the threshold, and I have brushed up against the realization, Kusama’s realization, that fear can be freedom—my own infinity.