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Micheal Cohen

Flash Art n. 175 March/April 1994



An image; Yayoi Kusama at the 1966 Venice Biennale, floating amidst a sea of mirrored balls in a blazing red bodysuit, eyes shut in ecstasy. In this Narcissus Garden, the shape of her body reflects and fractures, dis- appearing into infinity. For 20 years, Kusama’s vanishing act has been all too literal, an absence from public view of one of the 60s most innovative artists. At her 1993 Venice Biennale installation, anarchic motifs — dots, phalluses, and mirrors — revealed a strong influence on movements from post-minimalism to current abject art.1 As the Japanese pavilion reminded us, Kusama’s work still displays an unrivaled power in its hypnotic depiction of psychic dissolution, narcissism, and raw sensuality.2


One day I was looking at the red flower pat- terns of the tablecloth... 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 l had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space…3

Kusama’s work has, since childhood, expressed her hallucinations of private and pub­lic obliteration. The “Infinity Nets, ” 1953-61, appear at first to be subdued representatives of minimalist painting; prolonged inter­action reveals them as the first mature expression of her anarchic, psychological states. The painting Yellow Net, 1960, depicts an undulating mass of black dots surrounded by an ochre field. The implied space sexually overflows and invades our area, but at the same time her marks seem vulnerably eccentric, ambivalent to contact.

For Kusama, a dot represented her being, surrounded by “the white net of nihility” which “ties the astronomical accumulation of polka dots” and “obliterates myself, others, and everything else in the universe.”4

Yususke Nakahara has termed this quality in Kusama’s art Hanran, which (depending on the character with which it is written) means insurrection and/or inundation. In the “Infinity Nets,” identity is inundated, the group obliterated. The nodal point of rup- ture/connection is the invisible net, society.



Soon the nets went beyond the bounds of the canvas to cover the desks, the chairs, and the floor, and I realized... the dream of ob- sessional art I experienced in my childhood.5


The quiet nets mutated into cacophonous excess in Kusama’s subsequent series, the “Compulsion Furniture,” common objects overrun with protruding sewn and stuffed cloth phalluses. Accumulation #1, 1962, was the first, an easy chair crammed with penile forms on every available surface. This mass proliferation of male sexuality titillates us in a way not entirely sensual. Its meaning seems slightly out of reach, under the sur­face. These submerged intentions, can best be charted through Freud’s conception of obsessive compulsion. The photos of Kusama in her studio with every object in the room overrun by phalluses hint that these stuffed penises are an obsessive metaphor for a trauma which cannot be released. The repeated penile form substitutes but does not satisfy; the cycle continues endlessly.

If this repressed energy becomes too great, the intolerable sensations are projected out into the world. Hanran here becomes a literal process: attacking the chair with the projected traumatic symbols, the phalluses. The group space, our space, is disrupted by the sexual eruption in our midst. What remains is the question: what is the trauma which the phallus represents?

The Mirror Stage

Live with illusions... Love yourself beyond the point of vanity.6

This mystery ends abruptly if we accept Kusama’s motifs as both obsessional productions and a stage in psychic development: a productive debilitation.

Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli's Field) #3, 1964, a thousand-fold reflection of the view­er amidst writhing clusters of polka-dotted phalluses, exhibits an uncanny congruence with Lacan’s “mirror phase.”7 In his narra­tive, seduced by the glimpse of an “I” in its reflection, the child imagines a new, coherent identity. The image’s illusory wholeness painfully alienates the fragmented self, which must now defer to its more perfect visage. To be accepted by society, the subject will be found lacking. This is Kusama’s trauma, her first self-obliteration.

The holographic nature of the mirror body in this installation loudly contrasts with the tactile qualities of its “phalli’s field.” Desire for, and prohibition by, the phallus, the symbolic representative of power (and the fullness the self now lacks), attracts the self to the external world through the vehicle of the ego-ideal. Formed in the imprint of the dominating mirror Other, the ego-ideal’s internalized parental criticisms pave the way for the individual’s submission to abstract language, social leaders, and corporate cul­ture. Kusama’s hallucinations are rooted in that sore spot: “I couldn’t escape this militarism because the government wanted it and the schools wanted it... I suffered. It killed my mind.”8

The Oedipal structure, lodged in the ego-ideal like a parasite insect’s eggs, drives one toward a “real” object which will return libidinal investment. If there is no return of en­ergy, or if there is illness, and thus no resources to reinvest, the ego survives by with- drawing narcissistically into the self; reattaching to the diseased organ (in Kusama’s case, her tormented mind).

When the unconscious compulsively repeats the stuffed phallic forms, it gains a se­cret pleasure in the painful inflammation of the phallus/ego through the disruptive traces which escape. Through reconnection with her swollen self-image, Kusama breaks off relation with others and reality, producing the state of the Japanese term rijin-sho, depersonalization. In what is normally conceived of as a negative frame of mind, Kusama resists the debilitations of society through it’s own tool, absence.



The logical conclusion of her attack is Kusama’s Peep Show (Love Forever), 1966.9 The installation took place in a black, enclosed hexagonal chamber nine feet wide, whose walls, floors, and ceiling were lined with mirrors. Concentric hexagons of multi- colored Christmas-tree lights on the ceiling flashed on and off in a high-speed, continuously radiating sequence, producing a loud metallic rattle. In addition to walking through the room, the viewer could stand outside and watch through a “peep hole.” A Beatles tape blared in the background. Free “Love Forever” buttons completed the staging.

This work evokes a scene from the film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta disco dancing by himself amidst mirrors and flashing lights, obliviously self-entranced and detached. Kusama’s Peep Show also hints at a masturbatory, narcissistic withdrawal, where the ego receiving the psy­chic overstimulation which once bound it to an Other, desires itself into mirrored ec­stasy. But, in Kusama’s mirror stage, the ego, the enemy of the self, is not welcome. What is lacking in Kusama’s go-go room is that which its sordid atmosphere implies: the phallus. If the Other appears in her private peep show, he is seduced in the hypnotic swirl by his model, the reflected ego, into being splintered and fused beyond recognition, granulated in all directions like the infinity dots. Kusama’s mirror room allows a brief, fragmentary moment of self.


Symbolic Harmony

Whether / want to or not / cannot stop living and yet I cannot escape from death.10

The reference to mass culture in Peep Show’s Beatles tape ossified into a symbolic statement in “Driving Image Show,” 1966. In the room’s center stood various objects smothered in vibrating psychedelic patterns of nets and dots; a stepladder with high- heeled shoes, a kitchen table set for tea, a dressing table with mirror, several naked female mannequins and a small girl. The blue and red panels on the wall and macaroni shells covering the carpet also created a vi­brating, hallucinogenic effect.

“Driving Image” exhibits Kusama’s trademark kaleidoscopic sensations, yet seems off, not itself. It excites but makes one queasy, like the reused signs of youth in “Hello Kitty” products or a Walter Keane painting. The installation’s psychedelia (the sign of 60s counter-culture), merged Kusama with the “kitsch” mainstream, ending her imaginary isolation.

Connecting with others in the symbolic external world to satisfy needs has a price. The cost of admission into the language of the symbolic order (whose sign is the phal­lus) is castration, lack, the complete loss of body and sexual fluids. Kusama’s relationship to the phallus in her sculpture had always displayed deep ambivalence. If we think of Freud ’s concept of paranoia, which posits the hated or feared object as an inversion of that which is desired, we can see, on the one hand, that Kusama’s phalluses and mirrors display hostility to the symbolic objects they inundate. Following this train of thought, her hostility betrays a desire for the phallus with its promise to complete her voided self and engender her leap into the symbolic.

Unfortunately for everyone, this is a fool’s game; as a term in a linguistic system, the self becomes increasingly abstract.11 The dots signify a disappearance. Those in “Driving Image” have an odd, flattened quality since, what once represented her feelings, have been recycled into signs; they lack themselves.


Anatomic Implosion  

Featuring me, Kusama, mad as a hatter, and my troupe of nude dancers... under the magic mushroom of the Alice in Wonderland Statue... Like Alice, who went through the looking glass, I, Kusama, (...) have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom... You, too, can join my adventurous dance of life.12

In her seventy-five plus happenings between 1967-70, Kusama’s graphic sexual motifs and psychic dissolution permanently melded with free-love rhetoric and the kinesthetic terms of psychedelia.13 The “Driving Image Show” was the tip of the iceberg com- pared to her 1968 performance at New York’s Fillmore East Theater, where Kusama shared the bill with Fleetwood Mac, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Joshua Light Show. Handouts stated: “Kusama offers the new way to happiness by smashing to smithereens the old social morality.”14

As the audience entered the theatre, half-nude performers ran around painting polka dots or sticking decals on them. A cop began to chase them down the aisles and up on to the stage, where the performing girls stripped him naked. While being painted with dots, the performers gyrated to repeated, blasted strains of God Bless America and The Star Spangled Banner. They then all undressed and fell into sexual positions on the floor, fondled each other, kissed, wore and took off flags and CIA sweatshirts, and carried around photos of Richard Nixon. The interchangeable mixture of Kusama’s vocabulary with hippie terms creates an uneasy feeling of finality. She seems absent. Diving so far into pop culture, Kusama began to transform into pure language, a media image. As well, Kusama’s urges for connection with others was signified and drained in the perfor-mances. Contact produced an infinite void.


Self-Destruction is the only way to peace.I5

Soon after she left New York and returned to Japan, Kusama began to make ex- act replicas of her earlier phallic sculptures. The first of these installations, Ceremony for Suicide, 1975-76, consisted of 13 phallus-covered objects sprayed silver; a couch, armchair, suitcase, a woman’s shirt and pants, and cooking pots and pans. The installation lacked the raucous energy of the previous phallic work. It was oddly still. The return of her old style consumed her with her own syntax; it was Kusama’s Sepeku, “… the suicide of originality.”16 Kusama took control of her a symbolic death on her own terms. When Kusama speaks of the dot as a “symbol of peace” and “quiet over the whole world,” she refers to the permanent sleep of a self consisting of nothing but lack.17 The dots and penises are opposite expressions but memento mori of the same event. Embracing the phallus, her former object of rebellion became her grave marker.


Death /Birth

We must forget ourselves with polka dots! We must lose ourselves in the ever-advanc- ing stream of eternity! I8


Kusama’s works since 1976 display endless recombinations of her older forms. Each exhibits an intriguing absence: spent phalluses, shot spermlike clouds, and phallic flowers with no “object” undemeath. Some have bleeding holes from which phalluses emerge, like penises or semen entering a vagina, or worms growing in a corpse. This is, perhaps, the interior, the negative imprint of the inundated self. The feeling of the phallic inside of the body. It is unclear whether the sperm or worms are growing into new life or, as in ikebana, groupings which, in death, are more beautiful than when living. The truth is somewhere in between. This “Return to Etemity” is an eter­nal symbolic life, an undead self/language risen as its reward for joining the vampiric mirage on the other side of the mirror. Her image perseveres, and spreads out into a continuous array of blissful erotic phantoms, tropes of herself reflecting each other, multiplying endlessly, a love forever.



VIDEO - Kusama’s Self-Obliteration


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