Yayoi Kusama: The Orgy of Self Obliteration
As an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her “happenings,” which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.
In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films. Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly “mastered” or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.
Yayoi Kusama moved from Japan to New York in 1958. She lived and worked in New York until she returned to Japan in the mid-1970s. She moved in and out of the experimental film and art circles, including the circles of Andy Warhol and the influential Fluxus movement. Though she is currently enjoying an international renaissance with retrospectives of her work as well as shows of her new work, there was a period of time from the 1970s through the 1980s when Kusama was seemingly forgotten and her film, made with the late great Jud Yalkut, Kusama’s Self Obliteration (1967), largely fell out of distribution. However, Yayoi Kusama was very well known and celebrated by her contemporaries, during her most influential period in the 1960s. She presided over various happenings, including her infamous “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. She enjoyed (and worked very hard for) a degree of celebrity, intuiting that celebrity was a large part of success of the modern artist. Before Warhol realized that fame itself was integral in the emerging 1960s art scene, Kusama sought publicity at every turn and she used her outrageous behavior, her nakedness, her ability to self-articulate and pontificate about her work. She painted her own body with self-obliterating dots and was photographed as art and publicity, for example. Kusama was quite adept at publicity and often seen in photographs in the New York newspapers. She was present (and often nude or semi-nude) at screenings and performances of her work, and she’s often photographed along with her work, as if her self is part of the work, whether it is her very large “infinity” paintings or her performances.
Kusama’s “infinity” paintings consist of mesmerizing and enormous web-like repetitive motifs that appear to be the inverse of her dot covered works, ceaselessly repeated across the vast canvases. Kusama’s performances, or happenings, often include the artist obsessively and repetitively painting polka dots on all the surfaces around her; people, trees, horses, chairs, tables, walls, whatever comes to hand. (This is beautifully captured in the film Kusama’s Self Obliteration.) Most people knowledgeable in the arts are now very much familiar with her more traditional artwork from this period, such as the “infinity” paintings. Many have seen her pop art and her astounding installations, which often take the form of rooms covered with polka dots, or filled with small silver reflective pillows in never-ending repetition. But her more unusual works, such as her phallically shaped stuffed pillows, are now also beginning to claim international public attention and are shown at major galleries and museums around the globe.
Yayoi Kusama is also noted in the annals of experimental film for her abovementioned collaborative film and performance art piece, entitled Kusama’s Self Obliteration, which was co-directed by the well-known late underground experimental filmmaker Jud Yalkut, with music by the C.I.A. Change. In the film, we watch as Kusama paints everything around her with polka dots with a mixture of mania and delight experienced both by the artist and the participants. She paints directly on many naked people having an orgy around her, she paints water lilies, she paints horses, and with the use of intercut superimpositions of monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, she seems to paint (or punch-hole) dots into the entire world of the film. Kusama’s Self Obliteration was a major success, winning the 4th International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium in 1968. In retrospect, it seems clear to this viewer that, at least partially, the philosophy behind Kusama’s passion for self-obliteration is Buddhist in nature, with the goal of the loss of the self-being at the center of the repetitive act of painting polka dots on every conceivable surface; nevertheless, this reading is complicated by Kusama’s present insistence on a non-Buddhist interpretation for all her works. The film is a stunning and gorgeous time capsule of the period and works very well with multiple super-impositions and a chant-like score. Self Obliteration is an incantation for the obliteration of self, a very Zen concern, but also a modernist experimental film in every sense of the word.
But, oddly, as Lynn Zelevansky notes, Kusama claims that she “was never involved with Buddhism or conscious of employing any kind of Japanese traditions” (1998: 38), even if these motifs seem to appear in her work. In Zelevansky’s view, Kusama seeks to define herself not as an Asian artist, but rather a Western artist, and tries to avoid ethnocentric stereotyping. Nevertheless, Kusama’s Japaneseness is often cited in critiques (and celebrations) of her work. Indeed, Zelevansky notes that many critics denote “intellectual credibility” (ibid.: 37) on the part of Kusama as a result of her Japanese identity. Perhaps it says more about the critics that Zelevansky cites, that they seem preoccupied with Kusama as an exotic Asian Other. For example, Zelevansky quotes an unsigned writer who wrote for a Boston paper stating “Miss Kusama’s idiom is decidedly Japanese in its reticence and confinement to black and white […] I could not help but think that her style expresses obliquely and delicately the sense of the void so germane to Buddhistic thought” (ibid.). Nevertheless, as Zelevansky concludes, “the ways in which Kusama engages in notions of infinity and endless repetition do suggest the formative influence of Japanese culture in the broadest sense” (ibid.: 38).
Kusama’s frequent downplaying of her own Japaneseness is perhaps quite understandable given the manner in which Asian subjects are often “Othered” as part of a mythic Orient, as described in Edward Said’s famous Orientalism, and Asian women in particular are, according to Gina Marchetti, passive objects of spectacle or sexualized demonic creatures in Hollywood films. Kusama, not unlike Yoko Ono, must have been keenly aware of being treated as an Asian female Other, especially by the mainstream press in the 1950s and 1960s. She’s often described in diminutive terms, such as “tiny Japanese girl” (Lefortier 2000: 77). In a 1969 article from Coronet an author claims she “looks like a Geisha and talks like a Guru” (republished in Lefortier 2000: 220).
Kusama’s response to her Orientalized eroticization seems to have been to dismiss it as much as it was to embrace it. In her days of fame she was often photographed in her traditional kimono at her openings, and she’s also famous for being photographed in the nude with and among her sculptures, paintings and installations. Her self-stylizations in these photographs suggest both an embrace and zeal for publicity and an ambiguous relationship with her nude potentially objectified body. But it is a body that she clearly owns and projects as an artwork of the self. While she embraced nakedness and freedom of sexuality, especially male homosexuality, she has frequently spoken of her fear of sexuality in many interviews. She espoused “self-obliteration” through nakedness and often stated that through partaking in one of her naked happenings or films one could become one with eternity. Though she herself felt very uncomfortable about sexuality, she made proclamations that sound very much like those of Yoko Ono and John Lennon (and other artists of the sexually liberated era):
Kusama’s fear of sexuality is clearly related to her preoccupation with patriarchal dominance, as is demonstrated in her writings and novels as much as it is in her artwork. Perhaps Kusama’s myriad works covered with pillow-like soft penis sculptures are not so much embraces of the phallus as unusual displays of aggression toward the power of the phallocentric universe. In a famous sculpture entitled Ironing Board, for example, “a steam iron sits, face down, threatening to scorch and flatten the sea of erect phalluses covering the surface. In numerous kitchen utensil sculptures a phallus is clamped in a set of tongs, or severed from its base, [and] offered to the viewer on a spatula or a spoon” (Zelevansky 1998: 25).
Not content to stay within the boundaries of any art form, Kusama also publishes post-modern novels, themselves displaying an obsession with sexuality and death. Complicating any understanding of the works of Yayoi Kusama is her mental illness. Though it’s not clear exactly what illness she suffers, it appears to have an obsessive-compulsive behavioral component, which she used to her advantage as a productive artist. In any case, as an artist she must be celebrated for taking a limit and turning it into the very thing that makes her work undeniably unique and powerful – an urge towards obsessional repetitive acts of painting webs, nets and dots, and sewing seemingly endless phallic pillows into sculptures – turning her obsessions into art work that propels the viewer into a participating relationship with Kusama’s view of the world. This relationship is extended to the body of Kusama herself who is, again, almost always photographed in front of (or inside) her sculptures, films, happenings, installations and other works.
Kusama drags the viewer into participation with her artwork and herself; and in so doing, she confronts the viewer with her Japanese identity and her female identity and her star artist identity. Her performances of the self play with and disrupt Western notions of self, ethnicity and the body. In so doing, Kusama, like Ono, allows the viewer a participatory mode of spectatorship that transcends binaristic notions of modes of viewing. Her challenges to the spectator disrupt the binaries of West vs. East, male vs. female, and more philosophical ideas such as nudity as freedom and repetition as an act of self denial/and self fulfillment. By directly challenging the viewer, Kusama engages us in a limitless universe of her/our own making, one where infinity is possibly quite attainable through repetitive acts inscribed across the self and the Other.
Yayoi Kusama ultimately works towards a performative gesture of authorship of the female body – her female body – this embrace offers the spectator entry into trancelike states associated with traditional Eastern religious practice. The embrace of feminist utopia is common to female Japanese artists, as is their performance of Asian-ness, and “traditional” and popular femininity, but Kusama rejects stereotypes as much as she rejects orientalism because of her distinctive authorship and her insistence on self-fashioning. It is thus important to celebrate her work outside the boundaries of identity markers and the boundaries of categorization. Ultimately, the works of Yayoi Kusama transcend space and time configurations. In their embrace of hybrid identity, culture, and hybrid art forms, they offer us a kind of rebirth usually associated with older traditional religious practices, but our rebirth as viewers is through the practice of contemplation of these modern and postmodern visual artworks. With Kusama and Yalkut’s film Kusama’s Self Obliteration now widely available on the web, hopefully we will also see a reevaluation not just of the work of Yayoi Kusama, but also of the great experimental director Jud Yalkut.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes frequently for Film International.
Echer, Danilo (2000), “The Apparent Illusion,” in Elena Carotti and Debbie Bibo (eds.), Appearance, Bologna: Galleria d’Arte Modern, pp. 26-29.
Lefortier, Nadine (ed.) (2000), Kusama, Paris: Les Presses du Réel.
Osaki, Shinichiro (1998), “Body and Place: Action in Postwar Art in Japan” in Russell Ferguson (ed.), Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, New York: Thames and Hudson, pp. 121-157.
Said, Edward (1978), Orientalism, New York: Pantheon.
Zelevansky, Lynn (1998), “Driving Image: Yayoi Kusama in New York” in Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, pp. 10-41.