An eye-blurring parade of red, white, and blue airmail stickers in this artwork is typical of works by Yayoi Kusama, in which the same objects are often accumulated in a tight formation. She once mentioned a childhood experience of seeing behind her house ‘a river upon which lay millions of white stones, the basis for a mysterious vision’. Her obsession with such a wonderfully-rich image has evolved into the signature style of repetition and replication across her body of work.
In the late 1950s, Kusama began filling a large canvas with tiny dots to produce a dizzying effect. This gave rise to her Infinity Nets series. Writing about the 10-metre-long painting Infinity Net in 1961, one critic observed: ‘She doesn't want her paintings to end.’ Later, Kusama transferred her obsession with repetition to three-dimensional objects and started covering household furniture and everyday items with numerous phallic protuberances. These works were subsequently known as the Accumulation series.
In 1962, the artist hand-sewed hundreds of white stuffed-fabric forms to cover a run-of-the-mill armchair, making it the host of the ‘Accumulation’ theme and a seminal work of hers entitled Accumulation No.1. She also made use of a hotchpotch of materials to produce collages with a similar technique. This work featuring airmail stickers is a case in point. As a critique puts it, Kusama knows well ‘how to repeat a little element over and over again until a magnificent unity emerges.’
Kusama wrote in 1961 an article entitled ‘Under the Spell of Accumulation’ to recount her obsession: ‘I work as much as fifty to sixty hours at a stretch. I gradually feel myself under the spell of the accumulation and repetition in my “nets” which expand beyond myself, and over the limited space of canvas covering the floor, desks and everywhere; all of the universe which is actually visible. I am always standing in the middle of the obsession against the passionate accumulation and repetition inside of me and am lost in this indescribable spell which is holding me.’
The repetitive steps for producing giant Infinity Nets paintings and stitching soft sculptures onto a large surface may have offered an outlet for Kusama’s obsessive creativity. But some writers, drawing on psychiatric analysis, have also linked this behaviour to personality disorders. The long process could be draining, leaving Kusama exhausted and even contributing to her hospitalisation.
Infinity Mirror Rooms, another set of highly popular works by the artist, is also born of her obsession with accumulation. She uses the optical phenomenon of endless replication of an image in mirrors to take her obsessive approach to the next level.
In an age of emails and mobile communication apps, letter writers are a dying species and, for that matter, airmail stickers are an entirely new thing in the eyes of the younger generation. But back in the early 1960s, when Accumulation No.14a was created, using such common stickers was consistent with Kusama’s practice of making art out of everyday objects, be it furniture items or macaroni. When it comes to admiring this work of hers in this day and age of telecommunications, the unfamiliar motif could offer a window into the bygone way of life for contemporary viewers.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 14 December 2022 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Lap-wai Lam, translated by Amy Li, and edited by Shadow Wong.
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Lil Picard, ‘Kiihler Wind des Nihlismus’ [Cool Wind of Nihilism], Die Welt, 5 March 1964.