By Melissa Frateantonio
Yayoi Kusama is most recognised for her wild, unfurling contemporary art installations and exhibitions characterised by an expansiveness — an infinitive continuality of dots, of mirrors, of light.
However, few onlookers of her artwork delve beyond the spectacle itself. What is perhaps most remarkable about Kusama is the underlying force of her artwork: the inextricability of her condition of mental health from her practice of art.
“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.”
Since her childhood growing up in Nagano, Japan, she has coped with severe psychological difficulties. She began to experience “visual and aural hallucinations”, whereupon she would run home to draw them: “One day, I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were all talking to me.”
She continued to suffer regular episodes of neurosis upon moving to New York in pursuit of her burgeoning artistic career inspired greatly by her written exchanges with Georgia O’Keefe. In her studio there, her neuroticism continued: she talks of the nets and polka dots which crawled from her canvas to the plains of the furniture, the floor, swathing her body; she became the patterns, part of the room itself.
However, after her pursuit of fame in New York, her ongoing traumatic experiences of mental illness led her to move back to Tokyo. She has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric institute there since 1977. She still commutes to her art studio across the street every day where she continues to create.
Despite her tumultuous, ongoing journey grappling with mental illness, her art embodies her. It is where her happiness, her suffering, her love – it is where everything coalesces into being. Her mental health is a centripetal force spurring her creativity. Now, of course, this is not to romanticise Kusama’s suffering, but rather to elucidate her resilience and the embracing of her personal journey with mental health.
Featured Illustration of Yayoi Kusama: Anna Thomas