On a chilly February morning, an 82-year-old Japanese woman is wheeled into the Tate Modern gallery in London, wearing a fringed red wig and a polka-dot dress matching the balloons hanging all around.
She is the painter, peacenik and performance artist Yayoi Kusama, who made a splash in 1960s New York before heading home a decade later and then checking herself into the mental hospital where she still lives. Tate has opened a retrospective of her work, featuring polka dots, limp sculptures of the male organ and psychedelic rooms beamed with swirling colored spots.
Kusama sits at a long table on the gallery’s top floor, flanked by two assistants and facing four journalists. Her wide eyes are darkly lined, her lips theatrically traced. On the table is an unwrapped box of chocolates that Godiva sent after finding out she liked them.
“Today is the most wonderful day in my life,” says Kusama in halting English, before reverting to Japanese to praise the host country, its art-loving people and its monarchy.
“I hope royalty continues forever,” she says through an interpreter, her expression one of permanent stupor. “This is the thing that can contribute to peace throughout the world.”
The conversation turns to 46-year-old Damien Hirst, whose signature spot canvases are currently on show across 11 Gagosian Galleries worldwide. Is he a copycat?
“I have been using polka dots since I was a very young child,” says Kusama. “It’s only after that, it seems, that they’ve become popular throughout the art world.”
She loves Hirst, she says, and respects his work. Yet a subsequent comment suggests disapproval of Hirst’s methods: Kusama says she works alone, with no help from assistants, hence the leg aches and the wheelchair.
To Kusama, dots represent her life -- “a single particle among billions,” as she writes in her autobiography. It’s the dots that got her noticed in New York in 1959: large white “Infinity Net” canvases with faded gray spots. She became a contributor to, if not a precursor of, Minimalism and Pop Art.
Kusama’s mother was from a rich family of seedling merchants. Yet rather than marvel at the flowers blooming around her, little Yayoi developed visual and aural hallucinations that have continued to haunt her.
Home life was traumatic. She suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of a cheated mother whose husband chased every woman, including the household help. The little girl grew up to despise the opposite sex.
Paradoxically, as a young artist in sixties New York, she exuded sexuality. She struck kittenish poses, staged a nude protest (“anatomical explosion”) outside the New York Stock Exchange, and held ticketed orgies in her atelier -- staying clothed throughout, and abstaining from sex.
Her portrayals of men are unflattering. Two early 1960s exhibition rooms are crowded with drooping sculptures representing male appendages. Like creeping overgrowth, they cover shoes, sofas and even a rowboat that sits in a room of its own.
What does she think of men now? “I don’t have many positive feelings about them; I haven’t had sex with a man for decades,” she says. “My father was the type who would play around, who would womanize a lot.
“I saw this a lot, all the time, during my wretched childhood, and that probably affected me to develop these views against men,” she says, though she recalls having had gay male friends for whom she made clothes and threw weddings.
So is she afraid of men? “The simple answer is yes, I am afraid of men.”
In New York, she came across her “close friend” Andy Warhol, whose silkscreen cow posters were an “imitation or appropriation” of the motif she papered her rowboat installation with. She also had a platonic relationship with the older artist Joseph Cornell, whose death in 1972 plunged her into sadness. She moved back to Japan the following year.
In conversation, Kusama is both lucid and coherent, and sounds no more unhinged than the next artist. Her mental condition is something she has channeled into her art, she says, and doctors tell her the channeling has kept illness in check.
The exhibition’s most enchanting room is a mirrored chamber with dozens of tiny suspended lights that change color and are reflected an infinite number of times, creating a mesmerizing constellation. Designed in 2011, it may be a dazzling imagining of Kusama’s next destination.
“Yayoi Kusama” is at Tate Modern, London, through June 5. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)