As Halloween looms and pumpkins take centre stage, we consider Yayoi Kusama's lifelong obsession with the bulbous fruit, in an extract from the latest issue of AnOther Magazine
Yayoi Kusama has carried her obsessive compulsions ever since her childhood in Japan, when she first experienced the hallucinations that would recur throughout her life; it was by representing and replicating them that she was able to confront them. “I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” she explains today. Her condition, as she defines it in her 2002 autobiography Infinity Net, is one of “depersonalisation” – the phenomenon of “experiencing a loss of personality”, a defense against trauma and an explanation for why in her performance work she has sought self-obliteration by merging with her dot and net-filled environments. Though she became renowned in 1960s New York for riotous, naked “happenings” that were emblematic of the free-love era, it was a fear of dematerialising and indeed sex that fuelled them.
"I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me" — Yayoi Kusama
Yet, colour and love, as much as anxiety, suffuse her paintings and sculptures, whether of phallic protrusions, flowers or pumpkins. It is to these latter, bulbous forms that Kusama has lately returned, and she is presenting new sculptures and paintings of pumpkins at Victoria Miro gallery in London, exploring new materials and methods such as bronze and mosaic-making. As with many of the motifs that populate her work, her love of the humble pumpkin stretches back to her childhood, when she first encountered one growing on its vine and it began to speak to her, “in a most animated manner”. Since then she has found them to be “such tender things to touch, so appealing in colour and form”. A painting she made as a young woman of some pumpkins, using traditional Nihonga materials, won her a prize in a local competition, and with monastic fervour, she took to tirelessly reproducing them, mastering every contusion and bump. “I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me… I spent as much as a month facing a single pumpkin,” she wrote in her autobiography. Her pumpkins are now instantly recognisable, brightly coloured and covered in beetling black dots.
The tenderness Kusama describes is certainly visible in the new paintings, with their pleasingly swollen, rippling forms. The bronze sculptures similarly appeal to touch, as well as inviting peaceful contemplation. Yet while there is the suggestion of tranquility in these works, the artistry and energy behind them is as feverish as ever. “I rest very little and now I am an insomniac; every day I am creating a new world by making my work. I am determined to live to be 100 years old and continue to struggle with my art.”
Words by Laura Allsop