93-year-old Japanese artist still paints every day in psychiatric hospital

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Advanced age and the coronavirus pandemic have done little to stop the Japanese woman Yayoi Kusama .

At the age of 93, the living artist who has sold the most pieces in the world still paints daily in the psychiatric hospital where she was admitted voluntarily and has lived since the 1970s.

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Some of his latest creations appear alongside early designs in a new exhibition at Hong Kong’s M+ museum.

Gathering more than 200 works, “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 Until Now” spans seven decades as the largest retrospective of his art in Asia outside his native country.

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Best known for her pumpkin carvings and polka dot paintings, which can fetch millions of dollars at auction, Kusama’s success has skyrocketed over the past decade.

The most photogenic parts of his work – including his immersive installations “Infinity Mirror Room” (Infinite Mirror Room, in free translation)which sell out at museums around the world – have achieved mainstream appeal in the age of social media.

Needless to say, their new exhibition in Hong Kong is full of “instagrammable” locations. But the museum’s deputy director, Doryun Chong, who co-curated the show, says he hopes visitors will take the opportunity to delve deeper.

“Kusama is so much more than pumpkin carvings and polka dot patterns,” he explained. “She is a deep philosophical thinker – a groundbreaking figure who really revealed a lot about herself, her vulnerability (and) her struggles as a source of inspiration for her art.”

Infinity and beyond

Organized chronologically and thematically, the show explores concepts that Kusama has revisited in various mediums throughout her career.

The notion of infinity, for example, appears in the form of repetitive motifs inspired by the vivid hallucinations experienced in childhood, when he saw everything around him consumed by apparently infinite patterns.

Visitors get a sense of how these forms evolved, starting in a room full of his paintings. “Infinity Net” (Infinite Network) – including a groundbreaking work she created after first seeing the Pacific Ocean from an airplane window when she moved to the US from Japan in 1957.

These networks appear again in “Self-Obliteration” (Self-Obliteration), an installation created between 1966 and 1974, a period after Kusama had established herself in the male-dominated New York art world, despite the discrimination she faced as a woman, and Japanese.

She believed that male colleagues like Andy Warhol copied her ideas without credit.

Composed of six mannequins around a dining table, every inch of the sculpture – from the human figures to the furniture and cutlery – is covered with small looping brush strokes.

The motif later resurfaces to bold, vibrant effect, filling the amoeba-like bodies in selected works by “My Eternal Soul” (Minha Alma Eterna, in free translation), a series of hundreds of acrylic paintings that she started in 2009 and completed last year.

They appear in the colorful section “Force of Life” (Força da vida, in free translation) of the retrospective, which immediately follows one entitled “Death” (Death, in free translation), a contrast that speaks as much to the dichotomies of Kusama’s work as to the internal struggles that underpin it.

“Today we are very used to (people) talking about their mental health issues, but it was 60 or 70 years ago that she started doing that,” Chong said.

“It really runs throughout your life and career, but it’s never really in a dark place. She always proves that by talking about death and even her thoughts of suicide and illness, she reaffirms and regenerates her will to live.”

In another section, the exhibition brings lesser-known pieces from the artist’s repertoire, bringing to light what she created in the middle of her career, when she returned to Japan depressed and disillusioned. Among them is a 1976 black and white plush fabric sculpture called “Death of a Nerve” (Death of a Nerve, in free translation).

A 2022 version of the artwork, created for M+ and slightly renamed as “Death of Nerves” (Death of the Nerves, in free translation), is also on display.

Realized on a much larger scale and rendered in color, it embodies a sense of resilience and even optimism in stark contrast to the original.

An accompanying poem acknowledges that, after a suicide attempt, his nerves were “dead and in tatters”.

After a while, however, a “universal love” began to “run through my whole body”, she wrote; the revived nerves “explode in beautifully vibrant colors … stretching into the infinity of eternity.”

“It’s an unusual piece for Kusama because most people associate it with pumpkins, or mirrored rooms, or more poppy shapes, but this is a very smooth sculpture that she has always worked with, from the beginning,” explained Mika Yoshitake, a independent curator who worked on the M+ show with Chong, as well as previous Kusama shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and at the New York Botanical Garden.

“I think she’s amazing for being able to sustain her strength through art,” added Yoshitake, who last saw Kusama in 2018, before the pandemic hit. “She is determined to have her story told.”

Small in comparison is a group of 11 paintings that the artist began in 2021 and completed this summer, called “Every Day I Pray for Love”.

“She always said ‘love forever’, Yoshitake said, especially during this pandemic.”

In a short email interview with CNN Kusama explained his dedication to his art.

“I paint every day,” she said. “I will continue to create a world marveling at life, embracing all messages of love, peace and the universe.”

Since her teens, Kusama has read Chinese poems and literature “with deep respect,” she said. As such, she added, she is “happy” to have her work exhibited in Hong Kong.

According to M+, the exhibition has been described as “the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work to date” by curator and critic Akira Tatehata, who serves as director of the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo.

Tatehata, who visited the museum in November, has long been a supporter of the artist and curated her solo representation of Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

The power of art heals

The retrospective also carries a special meaning for M+, which took advantage of the exhibition to mark its one-year anniversary.

Since its conception more than a decade ago, the museum has been touted as Asia’s answer to London’s Tate Modern or New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

When it finally opened last year, it faced unique challenges, from Hong Kong’s changing political environment, which continues to raise concerns about censorship in sectors such as the arts, to pandemic restrictions that closed the museum for three months and , until recently, prevented most international visitors from the city. But Chong sees the latter, at least, as “a blessing in disguise”.

“For a global museum to open and be embraced by our local audiences in the first place in its first year, it couldn’t have been a better way to start the museum,” he said.

Recently welcoming its 2 millionth visitor, M+ hopes the easing of Covid restrictions will allow more people from abroad to see its vast collection, which includes the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art, and the Kusama exhibition, which runs through May.

“(Kusama is) living proof that art is indeed therapy and has powerful healing power,” said Chong. “And that’s such an important lesson, especially for us during this post-pandemic time.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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