Yayoi Kusama and the Lost and Found Mind

The art world has been fascinated by automatic art and art of the insane at least since Jean Dubuffet began collecting what he called “Art Brut,” or “raw art,” “outsider art” in the 1920’s. Dubuffet described interest in art by mentally ill artists to be “in the air” at the time (Maizel, John 1996). Dadaism had already pushed to shake cultural norms through its play with mediated images through collage and its Dada Ball, which encouraged outlandish costume and erratic behavior.

Personal expression, discovering new ways outside of strict cultural expectations driven by family, business and culture was the priority, and who has less cultural baggage than a person whose drive to make art comes, not from training, but from fantasies, visions, invisible voices and auras? Plenty of artists have toyed with hallucinogens and other drugs in an attempt to get beyond cultural norms, but what of authenticity? Isn’t it more real if the source of the altered state is intrinsic to the maker?

The other side of the argument is that holding up such work as authentic expression, separate from artists trained in the institutions of art, is exploiting and exoticizing the disorder, not recognizing the true experience or condition the person who experiences such states of mind.

Viewers who don’t or haven’t had the experience of such an artist may necessarily experience the work from the perspective of the “other.” Issues of reception of artists driven to create from a psychological drive or non-neurotypical state may always be complex and fraught with difficulty.

One of the first artists I was drawn to from this tradition is Yayoi Kusama.

Kusama studied Nihonga, a Japanese formal style of painting but, drawn to the avant-garde in America, she relocated to New York City. Some texts describe Kusama as suffering from postwar stress and anxiety in Japan, and looking for a space where she could get away from the pressures of a rigorously structured society.

“Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work has been linked to childhood trauma. Growing up in postwar Japan, where women’s roles were extremely constricted, she had hallucinations in which she or her surroundings dissolved into fields of nets or dots.” (Heartney, Eleanor, 2008)

New York offered that, but Kusama also became a sexual icon in the art scene, staging provocative performances, and creating soft sculpture environments filled with phallic imagery (ibid.). She returned to Japan in 1973 following a nervous breakdown, and resided in a psychiatric institution for a significant period of time.

She is known for her environments, costumes and performances where she, her environment and others are covered in dots. One textbook describes her indicating that the dots are taking over and filling the world. From an exterior perspective, the dots are fun and delightful. From an interior perspective they may suggest dissociation or becoming infested or taken over by the objects that fill her environments.

Kusama is one of the most celebrated modern artists in Japan. In addition to producing artwork, avant-garde clothing and installations, she has written several books. I suggest that it is through a combination of the words and artworks of an artist that we can understand and engage with her full intent, and it is through engaging the dynamic space between our reception and her intent that we can understand and engage with the mind of the artist.

Check out her books online at Amazon and other book sellers.

Go here to see the amazing images of installations and art by Yayoi Kusama.

For more on the origins of outsider art see John Mizel’s 1996 Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond.

For more on contemporary art check out a survey text like Eleanor Heartney’s 2008 Art & Today.

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