In a 1999 interview, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama said ‘My artwork is an expression of my life.’ In other words, making sense of her art would allow one to see the highs and lows of her life. As a self-described ‘obsessional artist’, the then sixty-nine-year-old painter had long been driven by her compulsions to turn her hallucinations into creative motifs. In Self-Obliteration, she reveals how there is more to life than meets the eye.
Laid out with food and vases, the simple dining table in Self-Obliteration leads the viewer to assume this installation simulates a home setting. Six graceful female mannequins surround the table and chairs, seemingly at a party full of lively conversation. What’s odd in this scene is that these mannequins, table, and food are all covered in Kusama’s signature ‘infinity net’ pattern. Not only do these colourful patterns of semicircles obliterate the faces of the mannequins, but they also freeze and constrict them. Both the work’s title and scene resonate with Kusama’s idea of self-obliteration. The ordinary, homey environment also indicates how this obliteration of oneself can take place anytime, anywhere.
Self-obliteration implies that in order to enter the ‘infinite’ universe, people have to forget their physical body and selfhood, and become one with their surroundings and nature. Although Kusama believes that human desires sow the seeds of endless conflicts and wars, her idea of self-obliteration goes beyond the annihilation of the self. Rather, the point of self-obliteration is to blend in with sublime nature, to observe everything, and to realise how the self is finite, at one, and interconnected with other things. In so doing, rebirth in love and equality is possible. Such a belief may sound abstract, but it is indeed a lesson Kusama learned during her difficult formative years, influenced by the context of the times.
For Kusama—who suffered from hallucinations from a young age—the idea of self-obliteration is not simply a theoretical concept, but is a very real, lived experience. In her autobiography, she recounts the first time she was overwhelmed by a hallucination as a child: ‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterned-table cloth on a table, and then when I looked up, I saw the ceiling, the window panes, and the pillers [sic] completely covered with the same red flower patterns. With the whole room, my whole body and the whole universe covered entirely with the flower patterns, I would self-obliterate.’ Although she was in a state of shock and struggled to escape from the hallucinations, she experienced a visceral emptiness within herself and the presence of an infinite space, which deeply affected her ensuing work.
In 1957, Kusama, then twenty-seven, decided to leave her controlling mother and conservative home country for the US to develop a career in art. She settled in New York the following year and returned to Japan in 1973. During this period, she drew inspiration from her repeated hallucinations. The view of the Pacific Ocean from the plane inspired the abstract, monochromatic Infinity Nets series, in which she deployed innumerable semicircular strokes to depict an ‘infinite’, netted space that recalls the vastness of the sea and sky. It was also during this time that her mental health fluctuated. Eager to make a name for herself in the competitive, avant-garde art scene, she would sometimes forget to eat or drink while working in her studio. Occasionally, she would hallucinate and see the painted nets spill over the frames, covering the studio’s ceiling, walls, and floor. Despite her hallucinations, she managed to overcome her fears and found a sense of peace in the creative process. For example, for Self-Obliteration, Kusama confronted her fear of manufactured food by throwing different types of mass-produced pasta across the floor.
In the 1960s, anti-war sentiment became widespread in the US as a result of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, giving rise to the hippie counterculture movement which advocated for love and peace. Having lived through the Second World War, Kusama knew the horrors of war too well. She believed art, which helped her overcome pain and trauma, could be the medium that connects humanity and the world. She believed that through self-obliteration, people will be able to return to nature, liberated from a turbulent society, and be reborn. Taking this to her studio, Kusama curated a series of installations, videos, and performances centred on this idea, hoping to spread the word. She continued to make art in this spirit, even after returning to Japan in the 1970s.
Kusama concluded the 1999 interview by clearly stating her aim: ‘I create art for the healing of all mankind.’ Today, more than twenty years later, she still works tirelessly for her art. Her works impart her life story and offer glimpses into the way art and art-making has influenced her life. Through her creations, she also hopes to pay tribute to nature and life, respond to the ever-changing times, and inspire hope. Her obsession with art and unyielding perseverance may be the reason for why her works are still very much relevant today.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 21 December 2022 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Kary Woo, translated by Amy Li, and edited by Julee Chung.
Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ is the most extensive retrospective of the artist in Asia outside Japan. Discover more about Yayoi Kusama ’s groundbreaking career and witness the power of art to connect and heal.