By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2019. No part of this site may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.
Check out the Kusama documentary film:
Yoko Ono (born 1933) and Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) lived parallel lives. As young, struggling and misunderstood female Japanese artists in the 1950s, they individually emigrated to New York City (where they shared an apartment for a short time) to make their unconventional art and to stage happenings. Both women were on the edge of madness.
Kusama was born in Nagano Japan (where Ono had been exiled for safety as a child when evacuated from her family home in Tokyo with her siblings during WWII). Both artists’ wealthy and respectable families rejected the strength and determination of their daughters. Kusama’s violent and cruel mother snatched away her paper and brush when her child tried to paint. Yoko’s father was disappointed when she insisted on composing her own music – a thought that was inconceivable of a woman in his mind. Both artists have suffered their respective families’ ‘embarrassment’ of their daughters, yet they were both driven enough to persevere. When Kusama finally had her own exhibition in her home town at Matsumoto Museum of Art in Nagano in Spring/Summer 2018 she said, “I’ve brought home the crown.”
After attending college in Kyoto where there was no mention of modern art, Kusama moved to New York City in the late 1950s at age twenty-seven to pursue her art, planning to stay forever. However, her illness forced a return to Japan in 1973 to begin psychiatric treatment.
Art is Kusama’s self-prescribed aversion therapy for her diagnosed obsessional neurosis. By translating her hallucinations into her work, she objectifies her fears and her disgust of the notion of sex. She creates, uses and in a sense, abuses multiples of an actual phallus and other images which plague her.
Coincidentally, the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly hosted both young female artists’ self-proclaimed exhibitions.
Yoko’s staged a phantom 1971 MoMA exhibition for which she printed a catalogue, released flies in the sculpture garden and filmed people’s reactions. Her conceptual exhibition became a reality in 2015 with the retrospective Yoko Ono – One Woman Show 1960-1971 at MoMA.
Yoko @ MoMA – One Woman Show 1960-1971 (2015)
Kusama also staged her own MoMA exhibition in the same location in 1966. She stood in MoMA’s sculpture garden amidst hundreds of mirrored balls which she proclaimed to be her Narcissus Garden, selling them cheaply to passers-by, showing her disdain for the commercialism of art. She made signs which read, “Your Narcissism for Sale”. Kusama wore a gold kimono with a silver obi for the occasion. The event was quickly shut down by the museum’s management. Decades later, Narcissus Garden was re-created as Narcissus Garden 1966-Present – in the Rockaways in summer 2018. It was sponsored by MoMA.
Kusama performed Narcissus Garden, also uninvited at the Venice Biennale in 1966. Biennale officials put a stop to her ‘peddling’. However, her installation and interactive performance grabbed most of the international headlines! Kusama eventually became the first Japanese woman to have a solo exhibition at the Biennale.
As with Kusama’s garden of mirror balls, Yoko used the reflective properties of a mirror in her Box of Smile, in which you could gaze upon your own smiling face in the mirror at the bottom.
She also wore her best dresses during her performances of Cut Piece, wherein spectators were incited to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors. Yoko’s art is off the wall – literally! It is on the ceiling, on the floor, in the sky and in your mind. You can step on it, burn it, mend it, cut a hole, or let the evening light go through. Much of her art is invisible; a wind, a whisper, a scream – it’s all in your mind.
Open Your Box – Yoko’s Box of Smile
Yoko Ono – Cut Piece
Yoko posed in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1960 with the naked Standing Woman sculpture by Gaston Lachaise (1932). In August 1969, Kusama performed Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the same location. She painted naked performers who made love to sculptures in MoMA’s garden, displaying a mocking sign, ‘What is Modern Here?’
Ono also rejected the fact that art should be contained in a museum, and that only so-called ‘artists’ could create. In 1971 Yoko advertised her own conceptual exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Yoko’s imaginary exhibition also became a reality in 2015, with the retrospective Yoko Ono: One Woman Show – 1960-1971 at MoMA.
People came to MoMA looking for her show, but Yoko’s work was not in the galleries.
Yoko: “So I had a cameraman standing there and asking questions: “How did you like the Yoko show?” Some said, “Yeah, it was okay.” Some said, “I looked for it, but couldn’t find Yoko’s show. It’s the conceptual show that most people have forgotten about. Even I did. But it became true in reality (in 2015).”
Just as Yoko’s conceptual MoMA show became a reality, Kusama was also the subject of a major MoMA retrospective of her work in 1998 and in 2012 – decades after she illicitly staged her own happenings and installations there in the 1960s.
Both artists worked toward world peace. We all know of Ono’s ongoing activism for peace beginning in the 1960s with John Lennon. Kusama once wrote an open letter to President Nixon offering to sleep with him if he would end the war.
Kusama’s avatar is polka dots, which she says stems from childhood hallucinations when her whole visual field became saturated by patterned images of nets, flowers, or dots. She channeled this into ‘self-obliteration’ creating a space where being overwhelmed is celebratory, not traumatic. Yayoi blends with her surroundings by wearing dots, painting them all over her body and clothing, on animals and creates her own infinite environments. Repetitive images; flowers, nets and phalluses occupy most of her world. In her 1968 film Self-Obliteration Kusama is seen painting polka dots on the landscape, even applying paint to the surface of a lake.
When Andy Warhol saw Yayoi’s exhibition in New York – a rowboat surrounded by mass duplications of itself on all the gallery walls – he soon manufactured his cow wallpaper and subsequent repetitive imagery. Claes Oldenburg modeled his soft sculpture upon Kusama’s phallic chair sculpture made of fabric and cotton, Accumulation No.1 (1962).
Yoko also creates environments, generally all white or transparent. She would blend into them by also wearing all white, matching her often blank canvasses. There is also an infinite aspect to her work – it is all ‘unfinished’. Ono’s London exhibition in 1966 at Indica gallery was titled Unfinished Paintings and Objects. In an exhibition called Half a Wind (1967) only half of the objects were present, with the other half missing. It’s no wonder that Yoko was a struggling artist. Wind, whispers, halves and holes could not be bought or sold. Her first sound collaboration with John Lennon was called Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968).
Yayoi Kusama is now the world’s most lucrative pop artist, with worldwide exhibitions and a permanent Kusama museum in Tokyo, opened in 2018. She lives in a nearby mental health facility. Yayoi’s infinity rooms with abundant mirrors are a sight to behold. She celebrated her 90th birthday on March 22, 2019.
Yoko Ono is now an internationally renowned artist, working infinitely in countless mediums at age 86.
“By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe”, Kusama has explained in the past. “Polka-dots can’t stay alone; like the communicative life of people, two or three polka-dots become movement…polka-dots are a way to infinity.”
In this approximately infinite universe,
I know a girl who’s in constant hell.
No love or pill could keep her cool,
‘Cause there’s a thousand holes in her heart.
– Yoko Ono
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