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Why Yayoi Kusama’s mental illness was crucial for her art career
Well done for fighting the taboo on mental health
Art x Style 04 Jan 2021

“Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” That was the phrase with which Meryl Streep finished her marvelous speech upon receiving her well-deserved Golden Globe in 2017.

Many artists in fact found inspiration from personal pain and therapy in their art expression, such as Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Marina Abramovic and Yayoi Kusama.

Even if the critics say she was the pioneer of pop art, Yayoi Kusama can’t really fit in any movement or style, since she developed an extremely personal art which is a powerful expression of her inner world. A world, however, filled with psychological distress, panic attacks, hallucinations and suicide attempts. Of course, the press tried to define her, calling Kusama “the first obsessional art”, even if we know she really is more of this. Later, she will call her own style “psychosomatic art”.

“Infinity nets”, her first works to achieve the international success, are created during several nervous breakdowns. They appear to be both a symptom of the mental illness that has dogged her since childhood, and a sign of her continuing power to overcome it through art.

As she will later confess in her autobiography:

“When I am in front of the canvas painting dots, I end up filling the table and the floor and even my own body. The net expands itself to infinity and I forget myself”.

Kusama famously checked herself into a psychiatric institute in Tokyo in 1977 and has lived there ever since, working in her studio across the street every day.

Another significative piece is “soft sculptures”, several representations of male penises. Even in this case she exorcises through art one of her many phobias: sex. She strongly believed that by representing her worst fear, it will become familiar: as they say, “the only way out is through”. And so she did, filling entire rooms with her phallic sculptures.

Her attitude towards sex is the result of her education in what was then a very underdeveloped and conservative Japan. In a time when marriages were arranged, her family convinced Yayoi that sex is something dirty and to be embarassed of. Moreover, her mother forced her to follow her father and witness his many betrayals, an experience that shocked her forever.

What about her reaction? She filled museums and galleries spaces with penis shaped sculptures, teaching us that having sex should feel normal and fun. Well done, Yayoi!

Born in Matsumoto, (Nagano Prefecture) in 1929, she belonged to a rich family of landowners which economically supported a few local artists but strongly forbid her to become one. When she was in High School she started suffering from visual and hearing hallucinations. She used to hang out in the fields with a drawing kit when suddenly flowers, animal and vegetable began to speak to her.  She used to quickly run back home and draw her visions in the most detailed way. This self-thought therapy helped her to calm the fear and the shock.

At that time psychiatry wasn’t accepted as it is today and she had to fight her battle alone.

In order to escape her patriarchal and oppressional family she applied for an art academy in Kyoto, where she attended Nihonga classes, an early 20th-century revival of traditional Japanese art.

However, she could not fit in the strict environment of this ancient art institution where the relationship between master and scholar belonged to an old tradition. This is the very first moment when she realized that moving to America was the only way to express herself and her art.

In front of an Infinity Net in New York, 1961© Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, David Zwirner, New York

The origin of her mental and nervous disorders is called “depersonalization”: a detachment within the self, regarding one’s mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself. Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance or being outside reality while looking in. This is a way to cancel reality when it causes us too much suffering.

Yayoi Kusama found relief by dedicating herself to art but in order to keep walking that road she had to leave Japan, a country filled with prejudices, constraints and conventions. On 18th November 1957 she moved to the United States where she became close friends with modern artists, such as Georgia O’KeeffeDonald JuddEva Hesse and Joseph Cornell

From this moment on she gave a boost to a career that deeply marked the contemporary art scene, changing forever the narration of mental illness and helping to remove the taboo on mental health.

Text by Mariachiara Tagliabue

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