Yayoi Kusama desires oblivion. For half a century, her paintings, sculptures, installations, performances, and videos overwhelm with her spellbinding capacity to efface, with her bubbly perversity. “Obsession,” “hallucination,” and “the sublime” are words often used when walking through Kusama’s world. Her well-documented mental illness, the self-described catalyst for her creations, lends to all sorts of psychoanalytic puttering around her work. Her paintings are ailments from neurotic attacks, her polka dots symptoms of manic compulsions, her phallic scourges evidence of some past Freudian trauma. Above all, they are wildly popular. Kusama holds the record for highest auction prize by a female artist at Christie’s, and her last David Zwirner solo show saw lines of gallery goers wrapping around the Chelsea block.
Born to a family of relative wealth in post-war Japan, Kusama’s childhood was, at best, restrained. In a 1997 profile in Artforum, she tells Andrew Solomon that she suffered mental breakdowns as a child, when she was a “prisoner surrounded by a curtain of depersonalization.” This depersonalization, a certain ego death, her thirst for erasure, would continue to seep into her work. She moved to New York in 1957 and gradually rose to art world prominence. In this period she created her first Infinity Net, her now signature expanse of consuming dot patterns. Of the work she wrote: “I had a desire to prophecy and measure the infinity of the boundless universe from my own position with each dot, with an accumulation of particles which are the negative of the holes in the net. I published a manifesto stating that everything, myself, others, and the universe, would be obliterated by the white strands of nothingness connecting the astronomical accumulations of dots. The white cords surround the black spots of a silent death behind nothingness, and I painted them from morning to night.”
For Kusama, covering the world with polka dots was a means of dissolving, a blurring of the boundaries of the self. In 1967 she made a short film called Self-Obliteration where we see Kusama apply her fingerprint on the nature surrounding her—horses, lily pads, cats, tree barks, eventually men. A montage of New York City sights flash, with a flurry of dots overcoming images of a busy uptown avenue or the Statue of Liberty. The film ends with a violent orgy where Kusama paints on flaccid dicks and some people get bounded up, everyone naked and covered in paint.
The most recent iteration of Kusama’s self-obliteration is more palatable. Originally commissioned for a children’s museum in 2002, and recently reconstructed for her latest David Zwirner solo show “Give Me Love,” The Obliteration Room models the archetypal suburban home. Inside, the house is all too white. Gallery goers are handed a sticker sheet with multi-colored dots to place, dissipating the pristine domestic space into a blurry of rainbow speckle. When prodded about the publicity surrounding her work, Kusama said, “My fame is the strongest manifestation of my will. I want to impose my will on everything around me. That is why it is satisfying to cover everything with my polka dots.” That’s a bit like what it feels to go into The Obliteration Room, one’s ego is hardly dissolved, instead it is giddily inflicted, the self reflected back to visitors on their iPhone screens, tagged away on Instagram. Rather than Kusama’s described vision of a net of marks dissipating the boundaries between space and self, between life and death, her installation instills self-aggrandizement instead of self-obliteration. Recalling 1968, when her early fame peaked, Kusama describes, “I was god.” She seemingly chases sublimation, but ultimately, just wants you to give her love. And, gladly, we do.