This publication considers Kusama’s career from 1945—a pivotal year for the genesis of her aesthetic interest in nature and cycles of life at the dawn of the post–Second World War era—to the present moment in 2022, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and the existential threat of the climate crisis. This involves two complementary, chronological perspectives: the first tracks the linear evolution of six themes—infinity, accumulation, the biocosmic, radical connectivity, death, and force of life—over seven decades (diachronic), while the second examines the concurrence of these themes alongside historical-political events (synchronic). This dual approach allows for an organic complexity and revisionism that decentres Kusama from the mythic ideas that surround her, including dominant perceptions of singularity (i.e. an aesthetic of sole originality and uniqueness), solipsism (pathologising her mental illness as defining her artistic practice), and her status as a global pop icon (i.e. relegating the artist to a social-media phenomenon). These narratives have grown to obscure interdisciplinary themes and contexts that enrich her legacy. This retrospective aims to ground Kusama’s practice in the geopolitical and psychosocial realities of an individual who faced Japan’s totalitarian government in the 1930s, survived the Pacific War (1942–1945) and the US-led occupation of Japan (1945–1952), struggled for recognition in New York (where she lived from 1957 to 1973) during the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, experienced the artistic and cultural effects of the bubble economy of the 1980s and 1990s, and has endured the existential fallout from natural disasters over the last two decades.
Extracted from Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, published in collaboration with M+, Hong Kong, to accompany M+’s first Special Exhibition.