"Everything here is Instagrammable," our guide told us. It was 8 o’clock on a humid Saturday night in August, only an hour before the National Gallery Singapore’s closing time. Yet, for many of us engrossed at the Yayoi Kusama’s installations that time, our night was just starting.
"I'm amazed at how an 88 year old can do art for that purpose," our guide continues, surveying how everyone from the day’s last batch was sticking out his hand so excitedly for a selfie, a “boomerang,” an Instagram story to capture the, err, magic going on around us. See, we had that little moment to spare, as the exhibit eventually wrapped up in September and then transferred to Japan last October 1.
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"YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow" at National Gallery Singapore
Kusama, of course, is arguably the most renowned Japanese artist of her age. Screw that, how about the world’s most popular female artist as Art Newspaper came up with doing a global museum attendance survey? TBH, going through her works as a painter, writer, sculptor, fashion designer, and installation artist, she overpowers the word “artist” rather easily. For art students and enthusiasts alike, Kusama is a pioneering figure in pop art and feminist art who has staged exhibitions with the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. For tourists and those who just bumped into her work on social media, she’s the one behind those "lit" and surreal, seeminly trypophobia-inducing pumpkin sculptures and “infinity mirrors.”
There’s a reason behind Kusama’s signature dot-riddled works and patterns, of course. (In fact, everything about her it seems is “signature”—from her bob wig electric in either blue or red to her deep, deep stare.) “One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness,” she is quoted narrating.
Kusama's work employed minimalism, evident with her choice of colors and patterns.
Death of a Nerve. 1976. Mixed media with stuffed fabric.
One of Kusama's famous pumpking sculptures.
Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets. 1998.
Despite borne into a wealthy family in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama is a survivor of abysmal parenting. Her mother used to physically abuse her, and would even send her child to spy on her philandering husband. She had gone asexual because of this, with injections of the phallic symbol into her art later on. She would experience these specific visions and hallucinations of dots, flowers, and more she’d eventually adapt into her art—in her words, “self obliteration.”
Kusama spent her teenage life as a parachute maker during WWII, some of the techniques she had learned in the factory she would apply later in her installations. While her earliest works came about at 10 years old, her first huge contributions came out in the 60s right in the Big Apple. She arrived in New York in 1957, after living in Tokyo and France. Kusama became most productive in that era, churning out these super intricate artwork fast and initiating protests through her performances, all of which would attract international critics. She came back to Japan in 1977, checking herself in at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. Up to this day she’d go work at her studio nearby to rid her darkest thoughts. Otherwise, she’d literally kill herself, as she has previously mentioned.
Kusama's kaleidoscopic Infinity Mirrors, which the artist says symbolize elements in society that bump into friction.
Apart from polka dots, the Japanese genius also saw flowers in her hallucinations.
Kusama’s influence spans decades worth of adulating artists and icons, including her contemporaries Warhol and Oldensburg plus Yoko Ono. She represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993. She’s staged solo exhibits at the most historic museums—the Serpentine Gallery in London, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has also worked with huge multinational brands like Louis Vuitton and Lancôme.
Kusama’s works seem phallic, minimalist, and even repetitive at best, comprehensible but at the same time winding and confusing. Yet it’s exactly how it speaks to any generation, then and now, a showcase of patterns that go in and out and so on, symbolizing freedom, union, and nothingness all at once, definitely deserving that Instagram photo and more.
The artist trying her hand in fashion art and styling.
Kusama's most recent works, still stamped with her love of intricate patterns.
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Photographs by the author